best and worst
I almost didn’t write this one, but it’s the last game of the season so whatever.
Worst: A Terrible, Exciting Game
Man, that was a weird game. It was a “classic” in the sense it ended with a bunch of exciting, game-changing plays in the final couple of minutes, but for about 3 quarters it was pretty ugly. FSU’s defensive line dominated UM’s offensive unit, while UM largely bottled up FSU’s offense save for a couple nice plays by Cook and a 92-yard TD throw on busted coverage by Francois. UM had 23 yards rushing on 15 carries and 83 yards passing on 19 attempts in the first half. FSU was a bit better, but without that 92-yard bomb they had 85 yards passing on 6/14 passing and 78 yards rushing on 19 attempts despite Cook picking up 12 and 28 yards on successive carries on that first drive. The teams were a combined 3 for 15 on third down before halftime, and while for the game FSU only had 4 sacks and UM 2, both QBs were getting knocked around on a significant portion of their attempts. Speight was nearly beheaded a couple of times by Walker and Sweat, while Charlton probably moved a couple of Francois’s organs on a crunching sack in the 1st quarter.
It can’t be understated how badly the offense played in that first half. They somehow turned a 1st-and-goal on the 1 after Kenny Allen’s booming punt led to a fumble into a FG, then failed to score a TD on their only real sustained drive of the half after Butt was lost for the game with a rough looking injury trying to stretch for more yards. They couldn’t run the ball with any real success, particularly sideline-to-sideline, and yet they just kept setting downs on fire trying to get to the edge, usually resulting in a TFL. I wasn’t surprised UM had trouble running the ball, but at some point if you aren’t going to really try to throw deep or utilize play-action effectively, running the ball for a loss/minimal gains into 8-9 men is just being obstinate (not coincidentally, FSU finished this game with 15 TFLs [!!!]).
It also didn’t help that the first quarter took eons, as ESPN apparently had a mandate all game to stick as many commercials as possible into every pause in the action. This was a sixty-minute game that took nearly 4 hours to play and featured both an off-key national anthem AND whatever that halftime show was featuring a band headlined by one of the lesser Jonas Brothers lip-syncing and finger-syncing instruments for 5 minutes.
But adjustments were made in the second half, and UM slowly clawed their way back into this game. UM held FSU to 15 yards in that third quarter, including a pick-six that pulled UM within 5, and were plowing into the backfield with regularity. For the game, UM finished with 6 TFLs, five PBUs, and 5 quarterback hits. Cook ran for 145 yards, but it felt like a Barry Sanders-type game, where he was stopped a bunch of times for a loss or minimal gain (9 runs for 2 yards or less) and a couple long runs to offset (71 yards and 28 yards). Francois had 222 yards, but he threw the ball 27 times and picked up 137 of those yards on the 92-yard TD throw where someone got confused and let Murray go free, and a 45-yarder to Cook that was perfectly called to get McCray on Cook going down the sideline. People will look at the big plays and assume the defense played poorly, but this was a solid performance against a good offense (with an elite RB) while dealing with the loss of Peppers.
As for the offense, it got…slightly better. Speight missed open receivers all day and absolutely looked shell-shocked at times as FSU kept the pressure up with their front line. But as the game progressed, Michigan found ways to move the ball in the air, stringing together a FG drive to start the second half, then scored TDs on two of the next 3 drives after the McCray interception return. It all culminated with Chris Evans capping off the only real long run of the game for UM with a nice juke and dive to score the go-ahead TD with about 2 minutes left in the game.
And then…a kick returner ignored basically his whole team telling him to take a knee and returned the ball 66 yards. A couple plays later, Francois threw a great ball to Murray, who was covered by Lewis about as tightly as legally possible, and that was the game. The ensuing blocked kick and return by Metellus was bonkers and fun, but there was no way UM was going to move the ball 40-ish yards in 30 seconds subject to that pass rush to get into reasonable FG range. And before you rush to the comments, I initially thought FSU was offsides on 4th down but upon review it seemed pretty instantaneous, and in the heat of the moment it’s hard to fault the refs for letting the play go. I had a much bigger issue with the screen pass to Smith 2 plays earlier, for what it’s worth.
Worst: The One Where I Get Angry
I’ll get into some analysis below, I promise. But off the bat, a couple of things that, to steal a line, grind my gears (warning: bad words ahead).
1. ESPN talking about Jabrill Peppers every 30 seconds. Yes, he was a late scratch in this game, unexpectedly downed by a hamstring injury apparently suffered a couple days ago in practice. Yes, he’s a dynamic playmaker on defense and in the return game, and when the #4 Heisman trophy candidate (and oh lord is that a sore spot for some people online) can’t show up in a marquee game that should be noted. But my gawd, move on Steve Levy and Brian Griese. I don’t care what the voice in your ear from the control booth is saying, you are sentient human beings, you don’t have to repeat the same talking point for 4 fucking quarters. Hell, drag your dad back into the booth and flail around trying to shake hands again. Talk about the turf monster nearly taking out Renegade before the game. Talk about Jake Butt, also an All American, who apparently tore his MCL or ACL in this game and didn’t return. Talk about the actual game, as boring and disjointed as it was in the middle. Literally talk about anything except keep harping on an injury we’ve all acknowledged an hour ago. ESPN is already offensive with so much of their product over the years, but the in-game work always felt like the last bastion of competency. Not perfect by any means, but even guys like Spielman and Millen could provide some top-notch color and analysis during games. But about the middle of the 3rd quarter in this game, I just muted the TV because I was actively starting to hate Brian Griese, which is sort of amazing considering he led UM to their last national title and is generally a solid color guy.
2. Everyone who questioned Jabrill Peppers and him not playing/being on the sideline yesterday, you can all seriously fuck off. I mean, just fuck the right off. And before you say “oh, those were just trolls”, no they weren’t. Look at the comment boards here and the liveblog, you’ll see people calling him out based on nothing more than their own misguided, self-obsessed measurements of their own being and worth transposed on a college kid in a uniform trying to win a fucking “amateur” athletics competition sponsored by a second-rate credit card provider in a stadium branded by a shitty chain restaurant while dumpy old men in suits collect huge paychecks. First off, there were some who thought he was faking the injury or not playing to protect his draft position, because the idea of unpaid monkeys not dancing for your enjoyment is deeply unsettling. I mean, clearly this guy was all about protecting his draft stock, you numbnuts.
Then people started questioning his heart and dedication to his team because he was up in the booth and not on the sideline with his teammates, again without knowing one fucking thing about how the team was handling the situation. Then it came out Harbaugh ordered him to the stay up there because was so emotional and didn’t want to disrupt the sideline, as a human being with fucking emotions would likely be in what could be his last college game.
Peppers was devastated he couldn't play. Said Harbaugh told him to go to the booth instead of sideline. Had trouble holding back tears
— Bob Wojnowski (@bobwojnowski) December 31, 2016
Finally, there were those who came out and said Peppers was overrated and not that important to Michigan’s success, calling him a mediocre defensive presence because he doesn’t have a bunch of interceptions or whatever counting stat makes it easiest for you to disengage your brain and just let your slack jaw sway around for 10 seconds. You probably also think RBIs, pitcher wins, and points per game are the best way to determine award recipients, and that the QB with the most touchdowns every year should have the Heisman.
There is a part of this fanbase that loves to tear down UM players, and its fucking unbearable. Before Peppers it was Kalis, then Funchess and Lewan. Before that, it was Stevie Brown until his senior year. Then guys like Gabe Watson and John Navarre. The list goes on. That doesn’t mean you have to be a cheerleader or blindly optimistic, and it’s fair to criticize performance on the field. But good lord, the personal attacks, the concern trolling about how much that player “cares” about the team, all that shit, it’s depressing. There will undoubtedly be other players who come under fire in future seasons, but for whatever reason this particular response felt particularly offensive.
3. Florida State fans after a win. Again, it isn’t everyone, but I had friends who were UF and Miami (YTM) grads who warned me about this fanbase, but I figured they were just acutely aware because of the rivalry element. But man, for all the crap UM gets for being arrogant, front-runners, self-persecuted, etc., FSU has got to be right up there. On the Tomahawk Nation blog, one of the most-commented/popular articles, written after they won the fucking game, was complaining about ESPN not wanting to talk about all of FSU’s injuries leading into the game. Mind you, I agree ESPN spent too much time talking about Peppers as the game progressed, but that and the Butt injury happened basically during this game; Derwin James hasn’t played since September. It had been discussed a bunch of times leading up to the game. And ESPN mentioned Ermon Lane being out with a broken foot, and I thought Auden Tate (a guy with half of his production for the year coming in two games against Syracuse and BC) being out was noted as well. And then they trotted out Trey Marshall being ejected in the 4th quarter for fucking targeting Lewis on a punt return as something ESPN consciously decided not to cover because of some hair-brain omerta Bristol has against The ‘Noles. Guess what, you don’t get to play the “woe is our secondary” card when your player tries to knock a guy’s head off. Mind you, nobody seems to mention UM was down a starting left tackle and a top cornerback because those injuries happened long ago, or Perry being suspended because of his sexual assault charge, or that true freshman Josh Metellus basically replaced Peppers with little notice, and that’s how football works; you deal with depth chart issues when they happen. Losing two All-Americans in the same game is new and potentially game-altering to the current contest, unless FSU believes removing Dalvin Cook from this game before the first half was completed wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
But whatever, that’s understandable if you are a fanbase with a vocal component imbued with a persecution complex; UM absolutely has that. But then, good lord, are they sore winners. Bud Elliott on Twitter was bad but he’s also an FSU guy and recruiting analyst so it behooves him to point out the dual narrative that FSU is supremely talented yet also a scrappy underdog because for about 12 minutes in a game they played 3 true freshman in their secondary (caused because, again, guys got hurt 2 months ago and/or got booted for targeting). But the worst were all the little eggs and nameless avatars on Reddit going at it, because they inevitably confirm all their stereotypes: multiple discussions about the finer points of shed construction, questions about getting “back in the game” after they stopped selling weed a decade ago or how to stop using offensive slang for homosexuals and the mentally handicapped in mixed company, retweets of posts from Stormfront. I know UM fans can be obnoxious, but you win on a crazy sequence in the final couple of minutes and all of a sudden it’s “domination” this, “southern speed” that, “whambulance” that (and yes, all those words were originally misspelled). I mean, #FSUTwitter existed for a reason, and was atrocious at times during the whole Jameis Winston era, but still, it’s jarring in the moment. Just a bunch of people who absolutely feel the world is out to get their precious football team, history be damned if they deserved some scrutiny, and won’t rest until you are reminded of it.
Okay, good. That felt good. Moving on…
Worst: Offensive Offense
First off, credit to FSU’s defensive line – they were dominating in this game. For those who didn’t watch the game, here’s it in gif form:
UM struggled offensively for a lot of reasons in this game, but the biggest was guys like Sweat and Walker were unblockable for long stretches. Again, 15.0 TFLs is 4 more than MSU had in 2013 when UM rushed for –48 yards and we all wondered if blocking had been outlawed as “undignified”. And honestly, that probably undersells how dominant this performance was by the Florida State defensive line, as the two best runs of the game by Michigan required (a) Smith hurtling a defender to get all of 13 yards, and (b) Evans having to break like 2 tackles at the line to even get into the second level for his TD. Nothing came easy for Michigan’s offense, and while I absolutely believe some of that was due to questionable play calling, especially in the redzone, FSU imposing their will with extreme prejudice had a lot to do with that.
Nobody on the line played particularly well, but Bredeson was clearly a weak point FSU tried to exploit, repeatedly lining Walker over him and, not surprisingly, finding a lot of success. Kalis whiffed on a number of blocks as well, Cole struggled to get any push, and it started early when UM couldn’t score from the 1-yard line after the Thomas fumble recovery as Smith was driven back for a 3-yard loss and Speight was almost immediately under siege at every snap.
Issues in the redzone continued throughout the game. They set downs on fire trying to run the ball (on four redzone runs, UM recorded –12 yards), and the play calling was remarkably disjointed and/or conservative (depending on how much you felt the play calling changed when Butt got hurt) the closer they got to the endzone. I initially thought the issue was their unwillingness to throw fades and lobs to Darboh, Chesson, or a TE, but upon review it was more Speight just holding onto the ball. He had the one deep-ish thrown to Darboh that Amara caught but was just out of bounds, but otherwise those throws just never seemed to be made in the normal flow of the offense. For example, down 17-3 and inside the FSU 10, Speight missed 2 straight plays where he could have either gotten the ball to Darboh or even dump it off close to the endzone by instead held the ball way too long. Speight loosened up a bit in that second half and the passing offense opened up, but he never seemed wholly comfortable. Absolutely some of that was good coverage and Speight maybe sensing footsteps from an impending rush (even if the pocket was reasonably clean), but it was painful to watch this one-note offense bog down so close to the endzone. Say what you will about FSU’s offensive gameplan (I thought Fisher was trying way too hard to make Francois throw against UM’s corners instead of picking on the LBs/Hybrid spots), but they were much more effective close to the goalline both because they could run the ball with Cook but also because Francois got rid of the ball quickly.
As a microcosm for the running performance in this game, Speight had the second longest run of the day when he scampered for 17 yards on a “oh shit, gotta go” escapes in the 4th quarter. As has been a trend when Michigan runs into strong defensive fronts (see Iowa, OSU, and not FSU), the offensive line simply is overmatched on the ground. I thought Evans looked the best of the bunch, mostly because he could hit whatever sliver of holes existed and had enough speed and wiggle to eek out what yards were there. Smith was a load when he could get going, but throwing multiple swing passes to him and expecting that bus to get up to full speed against this level of athleticism on defense was a tall order, and it should come as no surprise 2 of his 3 receptions were for 0 and –3 yards as he was tackled almost immediately.
Apparently this is a trigger warning for people who find a white guy dressing up like a Native American war chief and throwing a flaming in the spear into the ground totally acceptable in 2017, but Michigan could have used Peppers on offense in this game. Not so much running Pepcat (unless they’d actually let him throw the ball), but as a playmaker in space, either on a sweep, a screen, even as a back. Just that hint of unpredictability, of game-breaking speed and elusiveness, might have been enough.
Meh: QB Competition 2017
I’ll go on record and say Speight was fine in this game. Not good by any means, but not nearly as bad as some people thought, especially given the fact he got virtually no help on the ground and was under siege from the opening snap. Throw out that final, desperate drive to end the game and he was 20/34 for 163 yards and a TD. The average yardage he faced on his 15 (!!) third down passes was 7.1 yards (by comparison, Francois only had to throw 4 times on 3rd down, though his average down-and-distance was 9.2 yards). Some of that was absolutely self-inflicted, but as with the OSU game, you can only expect so much out of the guy when he loses Butt and was sacked 4 times and hit countless other times. Francois was worse (9/27 for 222 yards, 92 of them coming on a single throw where Murray was blitheringly open), and he had maybe the best running back in the country to shoulder the load.
One thing that I still don’t know the cause of is the team’s inability to throw the ball downfield. Yet again, Michigan never found a way to take the top off the defense with a deep ball to either Chesson or Darboh, and outside of maybe 1 or 2 throws they barely seemed to try. Maybe there’s an injury to Speight’s shoulder or wrist, but you’d think we’d hear about it. Maybe it was a conscious decision not to minimize turnovers, but that just doesn’t seem to jibe with Harbaugh’s naturally-aggressive sentiments or his past history as a playcaller. Maybe the calls were made but not executed properly, or the receivers couldn’t get open, or some combination of it all. But they have to rediscover this element of the offense to be effective, especially if the running game and the offensive line remain underwhelming.
So my guess is Brandon Peters will be given every opportunity to compete for the starting spot next year. Speight has had a solid season but trailed off as the year progressed, and if the future is on the roster there’s no reason to make him serve as an apprentice because of seniority. Especially with a whole new receiving corps to break in as well, I wouldn’t be surprised if Peters gets a long look in the spring game. I still think Speight has the edge simply because his ceiling seems to be #2/3 QB in the league, and this conference is winnable with that level of play in the right games.
Best: Swan Song for the Defense
Up front, yes there were a couple “how did you enjoy the play otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln” plays to discuss, namely the 3rd-and-22 run by Cook, the 92-yard TD where somebody in the secondary had the wrong play (my guess is Lewis, but it was suggested that maybe Michigan was going zone and in that case maybe there were multiple breakdowns and Lewis just got the short end of the stick in terms of help over the top). FSU also had a great call on Cook’s long completion in the first half when he lined up outside and just ran past McCray down the sideline. Peppers probably sticks closer to him, but that’s the definition of an RPS win for the offense. But outside of those 3 plays, FSU had 163 yards on 59 plays, an average of 2.8 ypp. That’s a pretty solid performance against a team that averaged 6.5 ypp coming into the game, and whose only worse performance offensively was probably their blitzing at the hands of Louisville.
The game-winning pass to Murray over Lewis was just a great pass and catch; those happen against all corners. Lewis could have just as easily gotten a hand on it (as he had earlier when Francois tried to beat him deep) and the game would have probably gone to OT. Doesn’t change the fact that the secondary played a really solid game overall, and I’m already fearing that twinge in my gut whenever the camera jerks downfield on a thrown ball, as I can no longer assume the receiver will be blanketed. Still, to see Lewis go from just another slightly undersized Cass Tech corner into an All-American was a joy, as was Stribling going from the guy who phased out of reality against Allen Robinson to a second-team all conference recipient. Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill also ended their careers well, with Thomas leading the team in tackles and PBUs in this game and Hill helped tamp down the FSU passing game (and I thought the PI he got called on for somewhat weak).
Considering Peppers was basically a gameday scratch, I thought Metellus filled in admirably. Cook was able to exploit the edge far more than I think he would have with Peppers on him, but for a true freshman making his first start, he didn’t turn into a liability. McCray had the game-turning pick-six after a nice play breaking on that pass, and while Cook beat him on that one deep ball he and Gedeon played their roles well enough to win. Yes, neither is an elite athlete, but they didn’t look overmatched out there.
As for the front line, in any other game they would have been the story. Taco Charlton was virtually unblockable in this game, as he has been for about a month, and hey, look, a team was actually called for offensive holding in this game, the first since Michigan played Illinois on October 22nd. Of course, there were half-dozen instances in this game (on both sides) where linemen just sat on defenders to slow them down, but I’ll take baby steps when it comes to calls like that. And I know FSU fans will point out that Cook had over 200 yards of total offense and scoff at the idea that he was “bottled up”, but again, down Peppers Cook had basically 2 big plays and not much else. Coming into the game, I’d take that, and it was largely due to guys like Wormley, Hurst, and Glasgow consistently getting penetration into the backfield. There’s obviously still talent coming back, but this was a championship defense if I’ve ever seen one.
Best: Kenny MFing Allen
Just bombing kicks all night, including the 61-yarder that Murray bobbled at the 1-yard line. For the game he averaged 47 yards a kick and consistently helped flip the field for Michigan. Plus, he nailed 3/3 on FG attempts, finishing the season on a 15-kick streak and further cementing how unpredictable college kickers can be. He’ll be missed.
Best: Quick Hits
Couple of quick points:
- I thought Harbaugh’s decision to go for 2 after the pick-six was debatable, since there was still so much of the game to go. At the same time, the offense hadn’t really worked at all up to that point, so you have to take points (and make it a FG game) if you can. It ultimately didn’t wind up mattering all that much because they got 2 on the last TD and, I assume, would have just kicked the extra point had they been up 2 instead of 1. I’m personally fine with it, but I can see why it wasn’t a slam-dunk call.
- I thought the pass interference call on FSU’s first TD drive was correct, but then later in the quarter Jake Butt was hit by a defender as he went up for the ball and the general arguments I heard were “a defender is allowed his space for the ball” and/or “it was uncatchable”. I buy the first more than the second, as the ball to Izzo was probably 4-5 feet above his head and was basically just as uncatchable, but a defender’s right to the ball doesn’t include hitting the receiver as you run toward the ball; some consistency is all I expect.
- Not having Peppers hurt immensely in the return game. There were so many of those line-drive kicks that he would have returned on the fly instead of Lewis’s (probably correct) decision to just catch and down the ball. In a game like this, those extra 10-15 yards on a couple of drives would have likely changed the outcome.
So that’s the season. 10-3, same as last year, ending on a bit of a down note but still a solid enough go of it. UM beat the Pac-12 South division champion by 17, the B1G West winner by 7, the B1G East winner by 39, stomped MSU, beat Rutgers by 78 points, and lost 3 games to ranked opponents by a combined 5 points and 2 of them when time expired/in OT. A lot of talent and experience needs to be replaced on this team, but there are players in the pipeline to do so, and there are enough pieces coming back that I don’t expect anything like MSU’s or Notre Dame’s 2016 seasons.
Don Brown’s defenses tend to improve mightily in year 2 and beyond, so one hopes that even with the substantial talent departure familiarity will offset that a bit. The defensive line won’t be stocked with All-Conference recipients as backups, but it should be solid and I expect Gary to make a huge leap forward in year 2, as will Hurst. I assume Peppers is gone, and Gedeon was solid for most of the year, but there is young talent at LB and I thought Bush showed solid improvement in limited snaps. McCray should have a good senior season as well. Losing Lewis, Thomas, Hill and Stribling will be a huge blow to the secondary, but if Clark comes back that gives you at least one semi-known commodity, and guys like Kinnel, Hill, Long, and Metellus all showed flashes on the field and/or in HS to give fans hope.
Offensively, I expect there to be heavy competition at QB, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Peters get starter-ish support going into fall camp. The offensive line needs to be figured out and, I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how many of those pieces are on the roster right now. I like to think some of the bad tendencies we’ve seen this year are just sort of baked into the formula after the transition away from Hoke, and that fresh blood will mitigate them, but we’ll have to wait and see. We saw in this game how a great back can paper over some mediocre blocking; there isn’t a Cook on this roster right now, but maybe Evans, Higdon, or Walker could make a semi-major step forward and at least give UM a threat in the backfield (I’m dubious right now, but it is a long offseason).
Next year’s schedule opens against Florida and has a couple scary road tests (@PSU, maybe @Wiscy), but they get both MSU and OSU at home at least.
I know some people are disappointed, but UM has now won 10 games for 2 straight years. The last time they did that? 2002 and 2003. The rebuilding is moving along, but it isn’t going to be instantaneous. Still, UM was a handful of plays away from an undefeated season, and if you had told me that after 2014 I’d have eaten a bag of lemons. Recruiting must close strongly and I assume it will, and then it’s on to 2017 and Jerry World.
I'm warning you up front, this is going to be like therapy for me. You want cogent analysis? Come back Monday for Brian's column. It'll be fantastic, I'm sure. This diary? It's going to be one big scream into the void.
Worst: What Do You Think?
I'm broken. I mean, not in a real sense: I'm a grown-ass man with two kids, a beautiful wife, a fulfilling career, and my health (largely) still intact. I don't have to worry about violent uprisings, disease, radioactive mosquitos, or alien invaders. In the grand scheme of things, I'm doing fine.
But in sports terms, I'm as broken as Jeff Jarrett's guitar. I guess I should be used to these types of games against OSU, but I'm not. Games decided by last-second stands, crucial penalties, and terrible officiating are the norm in college sports, but it's only "chaos" when your passive bystander; when it's one of your teams, it's heartbreak.
Initially after this game, I was full of piss and vinegar about the officiating. Even though I'd deny it in front of child protective services, I dropped a "fuck" in front of my two kids and in-laws the minute Samuel sprinted toward the sideline on the last play. I've seen this horror film play out a million times before, and the good guys never win. I accept that there will be uncalled holds and PIs in big rivalry games, even though you'd think human beings with pride would be able to call a football game consistently regardless of the context. But whatever.
And UM was not without fault; Perry roughed the punter by the letter of the law, and that Cole penalty was right even though the spot was questionable. Harbaugh had a right to lose his mind and he deserved a penalty for it, though I honestly don't think OSU was going to be denied on that drive after the second Speight interception.
But when an official is goaded into throwing a defensive holding flag because the crowd called for it, you get sick of it. Or when an extremely shaky PI is called on Hill even though OSU was basically mugging receivers all day, you get sick of it. Or when OSU, a team that gave up 8 sacks and 13 TFLs, somehow escapes without a holding call even though you see multiple OSU guards just sitting on Glasgow and Charlton and Wormley choked by tackles, you get sick of it. When, at best, it's a questionable call on 4th down if a player somehow got the first down on a play where he ran into the ass of the guy blocking for him (who looked like he was behind the line), and they don't even come out to measure it but instead scurry off to the replay system for a series of inconclusively bad angles, you wonder if the pie we call fandom is worth it.
Now, I should preface this all by saying OSU played well enough to win and UM played badly enough to lose. UM basically gifted OSU 14 points with their 2 interceptions. The first I put at least partial blame on the offensive playcalling; asking a QB on the road to throw deep in his own endzone, under a heavy rush, is asking for trouble. The second was all on Speight simply not seeing Baker and trying to throw a ball in tight coverage. For what feels like forever, UM couldn't consistently run the ball against Ohio State (they only had 100 yards on 40 carries if you throw out sacks), and in the second half they only had about 100 yards of total offense. Like they did against MSU and Iowa, the offense seemed to turtle a bit with the lead, unwilling to take too many risks but in the process leaving the defense out there to defend 46 plays in the second half. And in that 4th quarter, Barrett asserted himself running the ball and OSU had multiple opportunities to tie the game/take the lead. The fact they missed a couple of easy FGs absolutely mattered, and UM's defense failed to tackle Samuel prior to that 4th-down conversion despite having him dead-to-rights yards behind the line.
Yardage was about equal (OSU had 15 more in OT), and UM had a decided advantage in field position (their own 35 versus OSU's own 23). The time of possession was actually in UM's favor, though OSU holding onto the ball for about 11 minutes to 3 in the 4th is pretty telling, and UM was much better on third and fourth down than OSU (10/20 vs. 5/19). It was a close game where either team could win, and in the end, the analytical part of my brain can see how OSU pulled it out.
But I'm sick of that. I'm sick of OSU (and MSU and, weirdly, Iowa) pulling horseshoes out of their asses to beat UM. I'm tired of terrible officiating affecting games either way, the fact I can see a couple of these numbnuts stroll into frame and my heart immediately begins to burn because I know I've got another couple of hours listening to these guys screw up their jobs.
I'm tired of OSU being so fucking good, of being the class of the conference for what seems like most of my adult life. That UM was stuck with an aging Carr, an overwhelmed RR, and an incompetent Hoke while OSU had to deal with one whole year of Luke Fickell before Urban Meyer's heart started beating right again and he set down in Columbus. And they'll be good again next year, really f*cking good, while UM will be trying to replace most of their defensive line and secondary, plus basically all their receivers, offensive line, and leading rusher.
This isn't a rivalry anymore; it's a yearly execution. It's every scene in a spy movie where the hero is captured and the sinister doctor rolls out his various torture devices, except nobody escapes and it looks like an Eli Roth movie at the end. UM is 3 and 13 versus OSU since 2000, with 1 win in the past dozen years. We make fun of Notre Dame fans and their echo stirring about the past, but there's a whole generation of recruits who see OSU-UM the way we used to look at UM-MSU; one dominant team with a couple of close/fluky losses intermixed. Off the field, in the classroom, in the boardrooms, UM is an elite school that OSU can't touch, but when it comes to football, UM is a class below. Maybe Harbaugh turns it around, maybe Meyer gets bored/health reasons/scandal(s) and the tides turn, but right now I don't see a world where UM makes this any better than a 50/50 game in the best of years. I mean, this could well be the best defense in the school's modern history, a unit that basically swallowed up one of the best offenses in college football for 3 quarters, and they still gave up 30 points. And next year OSU will come to Michigan with senior versions of most of this team, probably shooting for another top-4 finish, and we'll do it all over again.
This despair you're reading, it's real. Call me a bandwagon fan, call me a whiner, question my faith, whatever. But this was supposed to be one of those years, and it ends yet again with a missed opportunity at a conference title and a bitter loss to OSU. Penn State, a team Michigan trounced by 39 points, and Wisconsin, a team UM choked out for 4 quarters and should have won by more than the 7 they did, will get a chance at a conference title and a playoff birth. Michigan will await their fate, likely going to some BCS bowl because they're a "good draw", and I'll cheer them on and write some 5,000-word diary after their game and convince myself 2017 will be a great year. But right now, in this reality, I'm settling in for a lot more of these games than I ever wanted.
Reddit is terrible, or at least exposes some of the worst traits of humanity. If you have ever visited its popular message boards, or seen a bunch of 60-something news reporters/pundits argue over "the internet", you have sense that it can often devolve into a stew of crass pseudo-intellectual debates, stark displays of basically anything terrible that ends with "–iny" or "-phobia", and sometimes outright threats of violence of "doxing". But I've been pleasantly surprised by the discussions over at the r/cfb domain, where game threads and breaking news typically feature thoughtful analysis and discussion from knowledgeable fans. You've got your trolls, but it's a place where people who really follow their teams will drop off nuggets of wisdom, and as someone who legitimately likes watching college football it's nice to hear about other programs beyond the talking heads on ESPN and a brief look at a box score.
But the one part of the subreddit that drives me insane is the tired-ass "saltiness" meme that pops when a team loses a close one. When you can't be creative or intelligent, or because you are likely quite young, male, and "digital", you call out anyone who disliked the outcome as super "salty" and incite mini flame wars. The issue with it is that it's a non-starter, a dead-end for meaningful discourse. And in the process, it casts all future debates in this binary model that all nuance and context is stripped away.
Jim Harbaugh came out and was "salty" with the media after this game, pointing out that the officials made some, at best, questionable calls/non-calls, and it sucked to be on the receiving end of it. And the response was the same mealy-mouthed bullshit you see nowadays, with reporters and fans saying it's a uniquely raw take by a coach but lacks "class" or is too "bitter", because pointing out consistent incompetence doesn't jive the with the usual PR-laced gruel these goobers are used to being shoveled. Nobody needs to hear Harbaugh sit there and say "OSU played a fine game, our guys fought hard, this is a great rivalry, blah blah blah" while Jim Delany wacks off behind the curtain.
I'm fine with Harbaugh trying to stump for his team, to say that they got a raw deal. He pointed out the numerous uncalled holding penalties MSU got away with in their game against UM; the next week, MSU is called for a bunch of them and the Illini pick up 10 TFLs and 3 sacks along with a dozen "pressures". I understand refereeing a game is extremely difficult, but at the same time a bunch of janky 50- and 60-year lawyers trying to keep track of college kids moving as fast as Olympic sprinters is a recipe for bad results. Technology has made it easier for fans to see when referees mess up, and instead of using the tools available to improve the overall product and how officiating is done, the leagues have doubled-down on obfuscation and confusion to cover these flaws up, figuring that if nobody knows what targeting, pass interference, or "control" of a catch is, they'll be golden.
A wonderful reminder that football’s tool of measurement is some shit your dad put together with what he had in the garage.
— Ryan Nanni (@celebrityhottub) November 26, 2016
So yeah, tell it like it is. You've got the money, so pay the inevitable fine and point out that the old men who keep wanting to see their faces on TV are fucking up some games for you. And throw in a little something else to drive the point home.
Best: The Defense, Again
They really deserved to win this game. Going into the fourth quarter, OSU had 153 total yards on 51 plays. They had held the ball for a total of about 18 minutes, and were under 100 yards rushing for the game. But you give OSU enough chances, enough 3-and-outs by the offense (UM had exactly 9 offensive plays in the 4th quarter), a bad PI on Hill to keep that final drive alive, and you are bound to break. Before OT, UM's defense had given up 10 points to one of the best offenses in the country, and even the one TD was set up on a super-short field after the interception and all of the penalties. I read a couple of people call out Don Brown as overrated for not stopping OSU in the 4th quarter, but at some point you'd expect your offense to put some more points on the board and give you some breathing room. OSU's first drive was for 72 yards, and their final 2 of regulation were for 61 and 77. In the middle, OSU had 10 real drives for a total of 106 yards, and that includes penalty yardage. Any other game, UM is winning this game comfortably, maybe even laughably.
The defensive line was again dominant. 8 sacks on Barrett thoroughly rattled him, and even with his runs in overtime Samuel was mostly held in check. Mike Weber could barely get going on the ground, and no Buckeye receiver had more than 40 yards receiving. Barrett looked rattled throwing the ball all day, but he rushed the ball 30 times and had one huge 41-yard run that flipped the field late. He still throws the ball terribly under pressure and seems to have regressed a bit in that department under Meyer, but he's terrifying in college and (ugh) will be back next year in all likelihood.
I thought Glasgow and Charlton were as dominant a pair against OSU as I've seen in my life. Charlton ate up whomever OSU sent up against him; he had 2.5 sacks and probably should have had a couple more. Glasgow was consistently pushing into the backfield, giving Gedeon and McCray even lanes to fill. And there was a series toward the end of the 3rd quarter where Glasgow was just being tackled on every snap and he was still forcing Barrett to bounce around. Wormley was mauling guys as well, and even though he was tripped by OSU's guard I think he was the one responsible for Barrett's pick. Gary also had a fantastic play in the second quarter where he beat two blockers and surprised Barrett in his endzone, nearly causing a safety.
The secondary was splendid as usual. Lewis was beat on one play, Stribling might have as well, and that was about it. Peppers got his first pick, and Hill was absolutely boned on that pass interference call in the 4th. He played a great game otherwise. You could tell OSU wanted to exploit the linebackers in coverage and I thought both McCray and Gedeon acquitted themselves well; there weren't too many breakdowns and McCray even picked up 2 PBUs.
This defense should still be good next year, but this was special unit. They'll be littering NFL lineups for years going forward, but it sucks seeing a really good effort coming up just short in a game like this.
Best: Speight Playing
You want a hot take? I think Speight played pretty well in this game. OSU has a great secondary and enough young talent up front to give passing games fits. Speight missed last week and clearly was still a bit injured in this game, and yet he completed 64% of his passes for 219 yards, 2 TDs, 2 picks, and a respectable 6 ypa. Yes those picks led to 14 points, and his fumble delayed a UM TD, but (a) he was the whole offense for most of this game, (b) the playcalling and offensive line did him no favors at times, and (c) his receivers were being manhandled at times. I mean, he had a ball to Chesson (?) where two OSU guys tackled Jehu before the ball seemingly got past the line of scrimmage. Multiple times you'd see a UM receiver basically carrying an OSU corner on his back, including on that fateful 3rd-down in the second OT. He was only 50% in the second half, and too many drives ended with incompletions to survive on the road. But he also completed a great pass to Darboh in the first OT on 4th down, and had PI been called on the next drive might have scored again. He wasn't amazing, but considering what were the alternatives under center, Speight deserves a lot of credit for his play.
Worst: The Second-Half Offense
I know above I said the offense turtled in the second half, and that's maybe not the best term, but it's weird seeing a Harbaugh offense just close up shop with a lead. I got it somewhat against MSU because that was a game UM had in the bag, but 10 points against OSU is nothing, and expecting your defense to shut down the Buckeyes for 4 quarters is a near-impossible task.
I'll miss Peppers for his dynamic playmaking, but it was like setting downs on fire every time he came into the game; if there was some special plan for him, some trick, I hope they aren't saving it for the bowl game. The offensive line struggled to get much push, and as everyone sort of expected before the season, settled in as "okay" as a unit. Against most teams that's enough, but against OSU you need to be able to consistently get a push up front, not 2 yards a carry. Speight wasn't sacked an immense amount, but he was under pressure and getting hit semi-frequently, and other than Smith none of the packs could get any traction running the ball. Chesson almost broke a couple of sweeps, but the longest play from scrimmage for UM was a 22-yard reception by Butt, and expecting to just march up and down the field against OSU's line wasn't in the cards today.
Darboh had some great grabs, and both Butt and Perry had their moments. This is another unit depleted by graduation; here's hoping they have a couple of guys emerge to take their places, or else this offense is going to struggle even more against the better defenses in the league.
It wasn't a terrible offensive performance by any means; again, this isn't a unit talented enough to steamroll good teams on the road. Maybe OSU downloaded UM's playcalling a bit, but in the moment it didn't feel like they were doing all that much different. The second half was just disjointed, and maybe on a second watch-through it would be more obvious. But UM let themselves get slogged down in that second half, and if they have any hope of winning games in this series they need to figure out a way to overcome this malaise.
Best: Kenny MF Allen and the Best Damn Holder in the Country
Kenny Allen was fantastic all day. He made his FGs, consistently pinned OSU back in their own redzone (5 of his 7 punts were inside the 20), and was a major reason UM enjoyed a significant field position advantage. Again, it's killing me looking at these stats and realizing UM blew them all. But whatever, Allen was the boss and whatever #collegekicker thing that went on in the middle of the year is long gone. And Garrett Moore had a great recovery of an errant snap for one of Allen's kicks, which should definitely be added to the highlight reel. And while kick returns were minimal, Peppers had a great kickoff return that set UM's first TD.
- OSU came into the game averaging about 7 penalties a game for 53 yards, while UM was toward the lower end at 4.7 for 45 yards. Guess who had 7 penalties for 59 yards and who had 2 penalties for 6 yards? My daughter hasn't lived in a world where a fucking hold is called at OSU stadium for UM, and she probably won't until she goes to college. Either put away the whistles completely or call the game according to the rulebook, but you can't just mix the two together, let it sit in the sun for 2 days and curdle, then pick the top layer off and feed it to people. For fucks sake.
- Harbaugh trying to put his obviously-broken headset back on was a bit of needed levity, even though it was during OSU's second TD. Harbaugh deserved that penalty because he let his cards hit the field, but the fact referees are so protected from criticism yet don't like to get shown up drives me insane. Nobody is here to see Dan Fucking Capron screw up another game, yet here we are.
- I know Michigan is one of the best rushing teams in the country, but this was yet another reminder how much they miss a truly dynamic back. Smith is great for grinding out yards, but he's never going to make guys miss, and you can't rely on a series of 4-yard runs to score. They are going to finish the year without a 1,000 yard back for the 5th straight year. Iowa is going to have 2, Nebraska may have 1, Minnesota has 1, 4 and 8 MSU has 1, IU as well. I'm all for a balanced rushing attack, but sometimes you also need to have one guy who can just smash a defense for 25 carries. Michigan didn't have that this year, and I'm not sure anyone on the roster fits that mold. Maybe Evans makes that leap next year or Walker makes a splash as a RS freshman, but it has to happen.
Next Game: TBD
We'll know in a couple of weeks. It'll probably be a good bowl. Yippee.
Meh: Straight to Streaming
I’m not a cord-cutter by any means, but I do subscribe to a number of streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Video, HBO Go, and (briefly because I wasn’t paying attention) Hulu. And they are all great in their own respects; the original programming plus access to older movies is great. But beyond the Marvel television universe, alternative histories, and reminders why being single in Brooklyn can be insufferable even when you legitimately like the two people involved, the real benefit of all these services have become the bargain bin for those “direct-to-video” sequels you used to find in bins at Meijer. You find out they’ve made 9 Hellraiser movies, 6 Kickboxers, and 14(!) The Land Before Time films. They’re mostly garbage (I like Dave “Batista” Bautista as much as the next guy, but there is only one Tong Po in my life), but they can still be entertaining simply because they are usually carbon-copies of the original movies with some element turned up to 11.
This game felt like one Netflix suggests to you because you watched 10 minutes of a documentary on corn. Last year’s game was an epic contest featuring Jordan Howard putting up the 2nd-most yards rushing ever against the Wolverines, Jake Rudock throwing for 6 TDs and 440 yards, a game-tying catch by Chesson on 4th down with 12 seconds left in the 4th, and a double-overtime thriller that ended with a 4th-down pass breakup on the goalline. It was nerve-wracking and exhilarating at the same time, a game where both teams just threw haymakers and Michigan happened to wobble just a bit less. But this year, it just felt like a weak retread, a cash-grab because the schedule demanded it.
Indiana isn’t an offensive juggernaut anymore; they’re a slightly above-average defense (which for Indiana is a miracle) and a janky offense. Michigan was starting John O’Korn because Wilton Speight was injured, and when most UM fans are trying to convince themselves that “It’s virtually impossible to be as bad as he was at Houston under Harbaugh” and “I’m sure UM can win running the ball”, that doesn’t instill a lot of confidence. Plus, there were gale-force winds, freezing temperatures, and I guess a little snow…
It was a close game for the first 3 quarters mostly because nobody could throw the ball with any consistency and both teams just sort of hunkered down and played snowball. I don’t buy the narrative that Jim Harbaugh didn’t “trust” O’Korn to throw the ball if necessary (Harbaugh doesn’t seem like the type to hold inconsistent views on a player), but O’Korn looked extremely uneasy out there early on and the playcalling was clearly designed to establish a running game and only have O’Korn throw on an early down. The fact O’Korn consistently missed open receivers and also had a nasty habit of rolling backwards while under pressure (if you had flashbacks of late Devin Gardner, you aren’t alone) didn’t help. Michigan was able to grind up Indiana behind De’Veon Smith’s 158 yard, 2 TD performance, a fitting senior sendoff for the first (in many, we hope) Harbaugh backs wearing the Maize and Blue. On the other side, Michigan’s defense bottled up Indiana’s rushing attack for most of the game, and most deep Lagow throws were either knocked down or nearly picked off. And oh by the way, Indiana had an average starting position of their own 20 while UM’s was at their own 38, goosed at it were by 2 punt blocks by the Wolverines.
And it wasn’t even fun in the way NC State vs. Notre Dame was, with drenching rain making every pass, tackle, kick, or even snap an adventure. This was just an unnecessary sequel to a classic, where the stakes were high and the game was close because of ineptitude and terrible conditions, not necessarily a well-played game. Still, it’s a game UM survived, and sets up another epic matchup against OSU next weekend. Let’s hope that next chapter in the franchise plays out a bit better than the last dozen.
Best: Lean On
After last week, for some inexplicable reason, there was concern that Michigan’s defense was faltering, that they were “exposed” because Akrum Wadley broke tackles and was basically Iowa’s offense in their upset win. No matters how many times you pointed out Iowa gained 230 yards total, their lowest output of the year (which is impressive considering PSU, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and NDSU all held them under 300 total yards), or that they averaged 3.4 yards per play, or that they completed 3 passes for 14 yards to everyone not named Wadley, or dozens of other examples of the defense’s steely performance, they’d say the team is collapsing. They’d point to Minnesota and Indiana last year, and say this and MSU scoring a bunch of meaningless points were canaries in the coal mine.
In some ways, it’s a natural reaction. It’s a very real issue that guys like Wadley and Scott have looked solid running the ball against a unit that at one point held 5 straight teams under 80 yards rushing. Tackling from the linebackers and secondary haven’t been uniformly bad like they were in years past (as anyone who lived through the GERG years can attest), but it’s definitely been a weakness some teams have exploited. And OSU looms as the greatest mountain to scale, full of ogres, poisonous snakes, and mobile QBs throwing to slot receivers.
But this ain’t 2015. UM’s defense has been dominant from game 1, and even the couple of cracks they’ve shown simply drop the defense from “one of the best ever” to “probably the best this year”. There seems to be this misnomer that “dominant” means, for lack of a better word, ungameplan-able. I mean, it may be news to some, but teams will do whatever they can to exploit your weaknesses, to force you to play left-handed, and simply call plays that put the ball in their playmakers’ hands in advantageous positions. Defenses will adjust, and UM has done an admirable job countering some of these changes, but when a game is close and the other team has its full playbook available to them, they are able to pry at these weak points. It’s why last week’s game was so weird; Iowa wasn’t overly successful running the ball on a per-play basis, but when you can do it about 50 times you’ll roll a 7 or 11 at least a couple of times.
In this game, Indiana had 255 total yards of offense on 66 plays for a paltry 3.9 yards per play, which are both their lowest outputs for the season. In fact, only OSU and UM have held IU under 300 yards, and that’s coming off a bit of an upswing for the Hoosiers, as they dropped 344 passing yards on PSU last weekend. And as is a custom with most UM opponents, IU got their yards on a handful of drives and not much else. Indiana had scoring drives of 75 (TD) and 68 (FG) yards. The other 10 drives (including 6 3- and 4-and out), they picked up 127 yards. This isn’t a vintage IU offense and the weather was butt, but that’s still an impressive performance against an offense that came into the game as one of the more explosive in the nation. Plus, IU’s biggest failing, their inability to finish scoring drives with points, wound up being pretty good; they got into the Michigan 40 yard line twice and scored 10 points.
For the game, UM recorded 12 TFLs for 47(!) yards, including 3 sacks for 28 (!!). And that TFL number probably underestimates how little breathing room IU had on the ground near the line; IU had 14 runs for 3 yards or less. Michigan had 8 pass breakups, which is incredible since Lagow only threw the ball 29 times and completed 14 of them. So in other words, if it wasn’t a catch Stribling, Hill, or Lewis were right in the receiver’s pocket. And the two biggest throws of the day were a 31-yard completion to Timian that was only open because Hill tripped, and the 37-yarder to Westbrook that was reviewed because the ball was moving a bit and Stribling was contesting it the whole way.
OSU will be a stiffer test, but at this point the defensive performance is becoming somewhat opponent-independent. Exactly 1 team thus far has cracked 400 yards of total offense, and that was MSU (401) making it look pretty in their loss. In 2015, UM gave up 461 yards to Minnesota, 527 to Indiana, and 482 to OSU. And it’s not like UM hasn’t faced good offenses; according to S&P, Colorado and PSU are top-40 offenses they beat by a combined 94-31. True, there have been beleaguered offenses on the docket (Rutgers, Maryland, Illinois), but Michigan also beat those teams by a combined 178-11. As the saying goes, you can only beat the teams on your schedule, and UM has just suffocated basically every team they’ve seen.
With the uncertainty at quarterback and it being a road game, expect the defense to be leaned on one more time. And unlike last year, this is a unit playing quite well heading into the game, and will be facing an offense that has had it’s own troubles in recent games. I’m not saying UM will be perfect, but a repeat of last year doesn’t seem likely by the defense.
Best: Senior Smash
In their last home games, it was the seniors that pulled this game out. Wormley, Glasgow, Charlton, and the rest of the front 7 just chewed up Indiana for most of the game. Indiana could barely get a pass off, and when they did Lewis and Stribling were there to knock the ball down or jar it loose. On offense, Smith had a career-high in yards and had two fantastic TD runs that were vintage De’Veon: he’d snake through the line, take some contact, bounce off, and surge toward the endzone. On a day when the passing game wasn’t taken out of the barn too much and was sputtering when it did get a shot (7/16 for 59 yards, 2 sacks, overthrows or drops by Chesson, Darboh and Butt), Smith carried the offense to a win. And while the offensive line wasn’t great (I saw Bredeson consistently getting pushed back/run around by IU’s aggressive front 7), Michigan still had 12 of their 15 first downs result from the run, and for the game UM was able to hold onto the ball almost 10 minutes longer than Indiana.
Best: A Healthy Glasgow
In this game last year, Jordan Howard was nigh unstoppable (35 carries, 238 yards, 2 TDs, 1 reception, 7 yards and a TD), and at least part of it was due to injuries to Mario Ojemudia and, in particular, Ryan Glasgow. It’s common knowledge that the defense took a nosedive last year when both were out, and in particular the run defense cratered without Glasgow at tackle.
What a difference a year makes.. Glasgow has been healthy all season, shooting up NFL draft charts, and absolutely destroyed a number of IU running plays by knifing into the backfield or chasing down backs as they probed the edges of the defense. He led the team with 3 TFLs, 5 solo tackles, and also forced a fumble. Wormley and Charlton were equally disruptive in their own ways (Wormley continuously chased chased down backs all night, and Charlton has basically entered into the “You aren’t stopping me without a hold” phase of his career as a rusher), but a big reason why I don’t expect OSU to have a lot of success running the ball inside next week is because of him.
Worst: A Re-Debut
I get the weather was bad. Indiana tried to throw the ball downfield and passes would just die. Indiana’s punter isn’t very good, but when his kicks weren’t being blocked you could still tell that the wind wreaked havoc on the ball in the air. And it was his first start at QB in basically 2 years, in a completely new offense from the one he ran last time, with said terrible weather conditions. Again, I understand that.
At the same time, this was an inauspicious debut for O’Korn. You can try to bury my in caveats, but 3.7 yards per pass is basically 3 yards worse than Tyler O’Connor’s play against OSU on the same day in largely the same conditions. The gameplan early on was clearly to give O’Korn some confidence, as Michigan called a nice swing pass to Isaac that picked up 21 yards (Chesson being flagged for a legit illegal block pushed UM back), and tried to get O’Korn out on the edge with some designed runs. Unfortunately, IU sniffed those out, and so instead of slowing the game down it seemed like O’Korn’s worst habits began to emerge. On a couple of passes, he’d drop back, feel some pressure, and then pull a Manziel and run backwards before wobbly throwing a ball short. He nearly pulled UM out of FG range on their second FG with that type of play, and floated a dangerous ball on another. Beyond a sack, running around like that increases the odds one of your linemen gets flagged for a hold or some other drive-killer. O’Korn did settle down a bit after his 30-yard run on 3rd-and-eight to set up the go-ahead TD, and on their nearly 9-minute drive to end the game, O’Korn got a first down throwing the ball to Darboh and another on a late hit out of bounds after he broke the pocket.
It goes without saying UM needs a better performance out of their QB to win next weekend. I know Barrett had a pretty terrible game himself throwing the ball, but (a) I don’t expect the weather will be nearly as onerous next game, and (b) he’ll be at home. If Speight can’t go, it’ll be on O’Korn to establish some semblance of a passing attack, and against OSU’s aggressive secondary that might end terribly.
I’m certainly not ready to bury him after one game, but a lot of the things Speight brings to the game (accuracy, ability to feel the rush and always look downfield) were definitely missing out there, and it has to improve.
Worst: RPS Without the PS
I wasn’t bothered that UM ran the ball most of the time; this was a game where you played to the weather as much as anything, and if Indiana is going to keep gifting you great field position there’s no reason to give it back with dangerous playcalls. That said, I am done with UM calling running plays to the short side of the field. Last week it was a couple of long-developing runs (including the big Evans TFL on 3rd down), and this week it was Peppers getting the chance to throw the ball as he sprinted toward the sideline. Indiana had sniffed the play out, but Peppers in the open field is always dangerous when you have some real estate, but you give away that freedom when you bring the sideline into the game. I’m not saying you always have to run to the field side of the play, but one plays when it’s reasonable to assume your ballcarrier will need to make a guy or two miss, give him some extra room to work with so that the defense can’t just jumble everyone up.
Also, and this might just be selective recall, but it felt like a number of the passes called for O’Korn required him to throw across the middle of a congested field. That’s likely a result of his issues running the offense and how compact the defense could get, but a number of his throws had chances to be tipped or outright picked off. It’s been a couple of weeks now where the playcalls don’t quite match the strengths on the field, and that has to change before they go to Columbus.
Best: Special Teams We Deserved
He's the kicker Gotham deserves.https://t.co/P8iFdRWClN
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) November 19, 2016
Kenny Allen made a couple of short FGs early on to keep UM in the game, punted reasonably well, and consistently booted kick-offs out of through the endzone. But immense praise must go to the punt return team, which blocked two IU efforts while Peppers save UM huge yardage by catching wobbly balls in the air and at least getting them down. In a game that early-on felt like one of field position and some luck, getting an extra 10-15 yards per drive were huge.
Worst: Les Miles Strikes Again
I’m glad the guy got to come back to Michigan and take in a game. He was seemingly always on borrowed time these past couple of years at LSU, surviving a coup by boosters out for blood last season after similar, less explicit calls for his removal in years past. And while I agree that he needed to go this year, getting fired in the middle of the season is always rough. So I’m not going to begrudge the guy a return to some friendlier confines.
That said, ESPN had no reason to drag him into a booth during the game and discuss his future job prospects. I mean, ESPN has always had a weird infatuation/hard-on for UM and Les Miles, to the point that Miles had to refute seemingly fabricated reports from ol’ Herby of his imminent arrival in Ann Arbor before playing for the national title. Yes, I get that Miles has an agent and that’s how stunts like this happen, but just call the game. Instead, we get Miles basically saying nothing while UM and IU battle into the 2nd quarter. And you’d think those guys would have learned their lesson with previous UM-related visitors.
Next Week: Something Inconsequential
Michigan goes out of conference to end the season, battling the fightin’ Frank Solich’s of Ohio University. Oh wait, no, UM is going to Columbus for yet another epic battle with the Buckeyes. Part of me knows OSU does this every year, where they take MSU for granted and look vulnerable just to get my hopes up. When full operational, Urban Meyer’s units are swirling balls of death and broken chairs. But this OSU team is definitely weaker than earlier iterations, at least offensively. They rely immensely on J.T. Barrett to keep the ball moving both in the air and on the ground; he’s run the ball 164 times this season for only 4.4 yards per carry. Mike Weber is talented but also a redshirt freshman, and after a blistering start to the year has been nothing more than fine for about a month (he had 111 yards against MSU, but 52 came on a single run). Curtis Samuel is terrifying both as a receiver and a rusher, but after him there’s a whole bunch of meh at receiver (Noah Brown had a career high in catches and 4 TDs against Oklahoma, but otherwise has been held in check most of the year). Their offensive line has struggled at times keeping people off Barrett (they’ve given up 17 sacks on the year), and are going to be facing one of the national leaders in TFLs. This isn’t last year’s offense with Elliott and a slew of seasoned NFL draft picks; it’s a younger unit propped up a bit by Samuel, Weber, and especially Barrett.
As for the OSU defense, it’s chaotic and has stars in the secondary but does seem susceptible to traditional running offenses. Wisconsin blasted them for 236 yards on 46 carries, MSU put up 207 on 35, and both NW and PSU were able to keep the game close by moving the ball on the ground somewhat. If Michigan can keep it close, I think there are drives that can be pounded out between the tackles. And if Speight can go and doesn’t have any lingering issues throwing the ball, I think UM’s receiving corp can give OSU trouble, especially Jake Butt against the Buckeye linebackers. I also assume Peppers will be fully deployed in this game, and he’s due for a big run or catch.
Two weeks ago, I thought UM was the moderate favorite. With O’Korn under center on the road, I’d give the nod to OSU ever so slightly. But this is absolutely a game that UM can win with an okay performance from their QB; I’m not sure OSU can win if Barrett completes 50% of his passes and runs the ball 25 times. I’m not taking the maize-tinged glasses off quite yet, so I’m expecting UM pulls out a nail-biter and moves on to the B1G title game.
This is going to be quick. You all watched the game. Brian will do a better job analyzing it during the UFR. I’m annoyed and don’t want to dwell on a crappy game.
Michigan isn’t Alabama. It isn’t even really OSU. It’s not a program that can just roll out dominant teams every year and compete for a title. It has windows of opportunities, seasons where they can play at an elite level and play for championships. 1997 they obviously made it to the end. 2006 got tantalizingly close. And 2016 felt like another (in what seems to be a once-a-decade window) of being another one of those great seasons. The defense is loaded with veterans and future NFL stars, the offense is being guided by one of the best coaches in the country, and the schedule is reasonably favorable. And for 9 weeks, UM largely looked the part of a champion, demolishing teams with ruthless efficiency. #3 in the CFB playoffs rankings, #1 in S&P+, top-10 on both offense and defense. About as close to a juggernaut at we’ve seen in Ann Arbor for decades.
This is a year when UM can take their crack at titles, both conference and national, before graduation and the machinations of football likely force UM to regroup a bit. Iowa should have been just another step on the path, a night road game yes, but also against a team that has looked lifeless recently. After playing bitter rival MSU and prodigal son’s Maryland, this game felt like a reprieve by comparison; a Greg Davis offense and a shaky QB against one of the best defenses in the country. UM might not blow the Hawkeyes off the field, but this was going to be one of those comfortable wins that get gentle nods from knowledgeable fans when discussion turns to UM playing “like a champion”. And then…
I wish I could write something eloquent and insightful, some 10,000 word opus that makes sense of losing to Iowa again, letting a team that had no business staying within 20 points of UM grind them up on the ground and kick a game-winning FG as time expired. But I just don’t got it, guys. This was a game UM should have won because they are the better team, and yet here we sit, a big black mark on a previously-spotless resume. And maybe they run the table and still get a shot to the playoffs, but this misstep makes that mountain even higher to climb, and now we are stuck rooting for more chaos and hoping the nagging injuries and the weaknesses that have arisen these past couple of weeks can be mitigated in real time.
For the third week in a row now, Michigan had trouble tackling ballcarriers, allowing 54 yards after contact to Akrum Wadley as part of his 167 yard performance. Both Darboh and Chesson struggled to haul in much of anything (a combined 3 catches for 35 yards), and Chesson compounded his issues by allowing Rugamba to rip the ball from his hands for Speight’s INT late in the game that stopped a promising drive. UM didn’t crack 100 yards rushing a week after Iowa gave up 359 to PSU, and repeatedly ran plays that led to TFLs (Iowa had 8 on the day) or, in one incredibly poorly-blocked sequence, a safety. The offensive line looked legitimately overmatched by an under-performing Iowa front 7. And Wilton Speight, after weeks of looking like a star, fell back to earth quite a bit, completing less than half of passes (11/26) for 103 yards and the aforementioned pick, and might have a shoulder injury to boot.
If there is a silver lining, I guess it is that it took sooooo many things to go wrong for UM to lose. Khalid Hill missed an obvious block on the safety that gave Iowa some life early on when UM was up 10-0, then fumbled the second-half kickoff that Iowa was able to turn into a FG. Michigan again suffered at the hands of the Arbitrary Targetting Gods, losing Devin Bush to a marginal late hit when the Iowa punter flipped over on a fake. Speight repeatedly missed deep despite both Chesson and Darboh streaking open; connect on any of those deep balls and this game absolutely turns for the good guys. Kirk Ferentz, a young earth zealot because he was there, man, when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, went for it on 4th down 2 out of 3 times, called multiple fakes, and generally coached that one game a year when the little old gerbils in his head take a break and the mongoose hoped up on Red Bull and whippets starts calling the shots.
The referees were atrocious in this game, to the point that John O’Neill should be booed every moment of every day he’s in Michigan Stadium from now until the heat death of the universe. Just a clownshow, the same incompetent goober who was the official for MSU 2015. The borderline facemask penalty to set up Iowa’s game-winning final drive, terrible spots including on Beathard’s final run, apparently not understanding grounding until it smacked him in the face, all of the kicker-related penalties, just everything. And that isn’t to take all of his calls were wrong, only that they seemed so damn arbitrary and inconsistent. At least he called roughing the center right this time.
It was a crazy weekend, so maybe it’s fitting UM joined the lot. Washington and Clemson lost just as badly, exposing their own weaknesses in the process, and the end of the season remains the gateway to accolades it’s always been: beat IU and OSU, and UM will be in the B1G championship game and have a chance at a playoff spot. And maybe I’m in the minority, but OSU still feels tractable simply because it’s a team with decided issues (QB accuracy, limited rushing attack outside of Barrett) and performances that have exposed them. But after a tumultuous week off the gridiron, I wasn’t expecting to be writing about another underdog stunner.
Worst: Offensive Offense
This was just a terribly called game offensively. Maybe the UFR will prove me wrong, but this looked like a Hoke offense at times out there. UM finished with a bit over 200 total yards of offense, and most of that came in the first half. The offensive line couldn’t get any push all day against the 86th-ranked rushing attack in the country. Repeatedly Michigan tried to get “cute” running the ball, throwing little pitches to Smith and Evans on short yardage to the short side of the field, only to have it snuffed out almost immediately by eleventy-billion Hawkeyes. Ty Isaac ran the ball exactly once for UM’s lone TD, then was relegated to the bench. Smith and Evans were basically running into Mason Cole half the time, as there was no push up front. Kalis really seemed to struggle at the point of the attack, even though the safety was probably on Hill not picking up Johnson at the snap. Both tackles had trouble keeping the pocket clean as the game wore on, and Iowa wound up blistering Speight those last couple of drives. And yes, field position played some role in this whole day, as UM’s averaging starting position was the 27 yard line, which is a far cry from UM’s nation-leading 36-yard spot coming into the game.
As for throwing the ball, Speight looked really good to start the game but could never connect on a deep throw to shake up the defense even though Darboh was flying down the field most plays. I know it was a tough ball to a diving Chesson, but his little hesitation-feint-throw-pullback-throw on the run on 3rd down was fantastic to watch. He had a some balls to Butt and Chesson early on that were great, and he looked in control of the offense. But then he started to get hit, and his receivers dropped a couple of balls, and the offense kept getting stuck in long third downs (for the day they were 5-for-15), and the playcalls became really focused on the deep throw. That’s not his game, that’s not this offense’s game, and it honestly felt like UM’s attempts to take the top off the defense gave Iowa easy outs. After halftime Speight was just 3/9 for 24 yards and a pick, and never looked comfortable. Even his completions were wonky, such as the ball to Butt that wobbled past a tight Iowa defender and succeeded because Butt knows a thing or two about holding onto the ball. And now it sounds like he might have a shoulder or wrist injury, which is fantastic news with team sorta-CHAOS and OSU the next 2 weeks.
What bothered me most was how predictable the offense looked. McDoom came in and they either ran the sweep or faked it; I get that teams will respond to his appearance and you can play off that, but throw him the damn ball once or twice just to give people a sense. Same with Peppers, who is a screaming “WE’RE RUNNING THE BALL NOW!” at this point, who mostly gets yards because he’s an incredible athlete and UM can sorta block teams anyway. But either put that back into the garage and tinker with the Pepcat package or let the guy do something, anything else. Because right now, it’s starting to get like that one song at the top of your Spotify playlist you hear all the time before you hit shuffle. You ain’t fooling anyone, Cults.
And yet, despite probably the worst offensive performance we’ve seen under Harbaugh at UM, Michigan probably should have still emerged with the victory. Sometimes that does just happen, and I’m okay with it to an extent. Iowa was able to weather some early trouble, got a couple of breaks, and pulled out a tight victory. Still, the offensive line still has question marks, and asking Speight to throw deep when it clearly wasn’t working (versus some shorter balls to get the chains moving and not tax leaky protection) are coaching issues that must be addressed. UM simply cannot play like this offensively again and expect to win, and they’ve only got a week to figure it out.
Meh: The Defense
I see people complaining about the defense, mostly because Wadley had a great day and they lost. And their is some credence to the ongoing issues tackling in space by the linebackers and defensive backfield. McCray repeatedly struggled to stay with Wadley in the open field, and it’s clear now that more physical backs can give UM trouble. The linebackers are athletic but still seem prone to taking bad angles or missing on shifty backs, and the idea of them trying to keep up with Weber and especially Samuel aren’t appealing. I’d say just throw Peppers into that role, but not only is it yet another burden on him, it would probably disrupt the defensive flow for the team.
I know people want to get on Stribling for his tackling, but I don’t expect miracles from my corners in run defense. And he had some nice pass defenses and what I erroneously assumed would be the game-clinching pick. And Beathard was terrible this whole game; he cracked 3.4 ypa, and that was with a Wadley pitch-and-catch.
Both Hill and Thomas, though, missed easy tackles and let Wadley pick up big yards after contact. Iowa probably should have had a TD (or at least a long completion) in that first half when seemingly everybody forgot Nate Wieting and were bailed out by an underthrown ball and Hill getting there a bit late to clean up. But in general, the defense played well enough to win. They held a team that averaged about 5.5 yard per play to 3.4, and that was with some zaniness to boot. Yes UM isn’t a murderdeathmachine against the run, but people saying it was “exposed” might be overstating it a bit. Sometimes the way you stop a running game is by taking those plays out of the playbook via scoring, and had UM found a way to push this to a 2-score lead in that second half, I think some of the Wadley damage doesn’t materialize.
Indiana will be a challenge; I have no idea how UM will fair against the all those goofy Redding, Natee, and Diamont packages, but my guess is UM will be fine. UM played well enough to win this game defensively, and I’m not ready to call a team that gave up 12 points on 68 plays “exposed.”
Worstest: The F**************cking Refs!
Watching this game every time a yellow flag came out felt like this.
It was just a cavalcade of insanity and insult. Iowa played well, but they got a health dose of help from O’Neill and his pack of blind squirrels. It’s bad spots, it’s bad targetting calls, a fringe facemask penalty, roughing the kicker penalties that basically forced UM to stop bringing any pressure lest they get blamed for Iowa’s kicker falling on his ass again, just everything. And I don’t think they cost UM the game; Michigan barely putting up 200 yards of offense was the bigger culprit. But at the same time, I shouldn’t be cringing as soon as I hear who is calling these games, and yet the minute I realized O’Neill’s crew was on the docket, I harkened back to last year’s MSU game and just knew something would go wrong.
College football is all about spending millions of dollars of coaches, training techniques, new technology, everything, and yet they have these part-time refs with histories of ineptitude messing around with important games. I don’t care about paying these guys, but there also needs to be a public reprimand if they screw up. Coaches and players get called out, let these guys answer questions after the game. They are grown-ass men and women, and their decisions have an outsized impact on games.
Best: Kenny MF Allen
Kenny Allen drained a 51-yard FG to give UM the late lead. Outside of basically 2 games this year over a month ago, Allen has been good as both a punter and kicker. For all the negative parts you can take from this game, one positive should be that Allen has ice in his veins and a leg to back it up.
Worst: The Heisman Talk
Listen, I think Peppers is great. He’s an amazing athlete and a special talent. He’ll be a mixture on Sunday for a decade. But at this point, I’m getting tired of every announcer trying to make a case for him. Peppers is special because of his flexibility on defense, and tangible, quantifiable proof of that impact is hard to find (save for TFLs, which aren’t even that good of a barometer). I know he’s great, fans know he’s great, but he isn’t going to win the Heisman, and as a viewer of college football I don’t need breathless commentary every time he runs for 4 yards on a designed run. It’s lazy and somewhat insufferable, and cheapens what else he does on the field.
Worst: RPS All the Minuses
I’ll let Brian figure this all out, but I thought the offensive playcalling was really bad in that second half. UM has a great offense, but when you are playing in a 1950’s game, call it like a 1950’s game. Maybe break out a jet sweep if you are feeling frisky, but otherwise just run the ball between the tackles and throw short passes to the flats and Butt and force Iowa to stop you. They repeatedly called for Speight to throw the ball deep, and it just wasn’t there. That partially falls on the players for not “making plays” (oh god, I feel dumber having just said that), but it also falls on the coaches for putting them in tough spots. I don’t know how to describe this offensive gameplan other than it felt like a Borges offense, too clever by half. A couple of times, Speight would pitch the ball on the short side of the field and the play was inevitably chewed up, and I just didn’t know what the plan was. Iowa’s defensive line isn’t that good, and my guess is a steady stream of runs right at them probably hit paydirt sooner rather than later. And yet, Michigan put themselves in long 3rd downs way too often (they averaged about 3rd-and-6), and it hurt their offensive flow and options.
As for the defense, I don’t think Greg Davis outcoached anyone, but Wadley in space was clearly all of Iowa’s offense and yet Brown and co. were slow to react. They did shut down the Iowa passing attack, as anemic as it was during the year, and again, that final drive wasn’t why UM lost.
I get that UM will get a team’s best effort; that happens when you are a major player. But on the road, you can’t mess around with competent teams, and for all of Iowa’s struggles they are still probably going to win 8-9 games this year. They aren’t a pushover, especially at home, and yet UM let this game play into their hands way too much.
IU comes to town next. They really aren’t that good, and while they are still CHAOS team, the shoe doesn’t quite fit like it did in the past. Their offense is janky and sometimes explosive, and the defense is fine for IU standards but has still given up a bunch of points recently (36 to MD, 27 to Rutgers, 45 to PSU). I assume UM will handle them and the focus will be on The Game for a shot at the playoffs. And yeah, a small part of me is hoping MSU builds on their demolition of Rutgers to give OSU a fight, but whatever margin UM had is gone after this game, and so it’s time to just win and advance.
This weekend both BronxBlue Wife and BronxBlue Daughter had birthdays, which included a 3-year-old birthday extravaganza, two sets of grandparents, multiple trips to places like Party City and Stew Leonard’s (which is like if half a Meijer was pushed through a Cracker Barrel and named after a guy who looks like an older, less Camaro-obsessed Papa John), and a sinking realization this will be my life for the next 10-12 years as BronxBlue Son joins the fray. So that’s a long way of saying that if this diary cracks 3,000 words, it’ll be a minor miracle. Or I started rambling.
Best: The Best Cable Providers in America!
When the Big 10+2 decided it wanted to become the B1G4, fans discussed the possible new additions with a fervency usually reserved for new apparel deals. There were the usual suspects like Notre Dame, the proximal options like Pittsburgh, Missouri, and Cincinnati, the stretches of varying lengths like Oklahoma, Colorado, and Georgia Tech, and then the fun-sized options like Texas. Rutgers was never the answer unless the question was “What is closer to New York City than Syracuse or UConn?” There was no sports rationale for bringing on the Scarlet Knights in 2012 (I mean, they have a Wikipedia entry about their Quidditch team, FFS), and they’ve probably become even less palpable in the proceeding years. Plus, as a middling academic institution in the conference, it wasn’t like they raised the prestige of the conference scholastically. This was always a naked cash grab, and no more was Delany’s lust for revenue dangling limply in the breeze like it was when he announced the New York cable market would be joining as a member.
As these stories tend to go, all bad decisions must come in pairs, so the addition of Maryland was met with similar derision. Even though lots of alumni from current conference teams live in the Mid-Atlantic, adding Maryland “opened up” access to the Washington Metro area (and its cable boxes). And in return for letting the Big 10 get a tiny sliver more from a couple million cable bills, Maryland would be able to actually pay its bills and keep fielding D1 programs. Plus, the Terrapins were just embarking on the Randy Edsall Era, proving that “coach who took a team to a BCS bowl” isn’t always a positive on the resume. So the general consensus was that Maryland and Rutgers wouldn’t add any real substance to the conference beyond the bottom line, and even though that has largely borne out to be true, hasn’t helped quell the anger.
But I never thought Maryland was a bad addition. Sure they weren’t some juggernaut, but from 2000 to the present they finished the season ranked 4 times, were ranked at some point in the year 4 more times, and won 9+ games 5 times. Indiana, Illinois, Northwestern, and Purdue would kill for that level of recent “success”, and it wasn’t like MSU was any great shakes before Dantonio’s last 7-8 year run of success elevated that program. Plus, they won an NCAA basketball title more recently than anyone else in the conference, and have enjoyed a bit of a resurgence on the basketball court these past couple of years.
My point isn’t to say expansion was a good idea, because it wasn’t. You already call yourself the Big 10 but have first 11 teams, then 12. The footprint of your conference spans almost 1,100 miles, and already seems to cover most of the major television markets you could ever care about (I was getting the B1G network as part of a sports package in NYC by 2010). You had already strained conference rivalries by scheduling large gaps between teams matching up, and adding even more teams to the mix would strain the organic faux elitism and tribalism that drives fan bases to show up to your noon kickoffs in late November that much more. And by the way, you’d be further proving the point that the only “amateurs” taking part in college sports are the people trying to run it, since none of these newfound riches would find their way into the hands of the players who generated it, only the pasty, outstretched hands of old men (and they’re always old men) in jackets standing on sidelines and failed pizza barons looking for ways to blow wads of cash.
But despite all that, adding Maryland was defensible. Adding Rutgers should have gotten someone fired, not (what I assume was) a nice bonus check and a nicer more corner-er office.
This game was never in doubt. While Durkin is a good, young coach and Maryland was a surprising 5-3 entering the game, the chasm between these two teams was immense. Durkin’s Testudinals picked up their 5 wins against a bunch of stiffs (Howard, FIU, Purdue, and MSU) and one semi-competent (and common) opponent in UCF, which unsurprisingly was a 6-point game that ended in double overtime. They had their pants pulled down to varying degrees by PSU and Minnesota, and their 6-point win against IU had a distinctive MSU stank to it, considering their scored the final TD as time expired. That underwhelming slate produced an unsurprising statistical profile; this is a decent offensive unit (39th in success rate, 27th in scoring points inside their opponents 40) anchored to a terrible defense (127th against the rush, 100th in getting off the field). Put another way, Michigan is #1 in S&P after this week, while Maryland is one spot below EMU.
Michigan dominated all 3 facets of the game. I know there’s some hand-wringing about missed tackles, edge containment, tunnel screens and giving up almost 400 yards of total offense, but this was still a game where UM recorded 13 TFLs, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 6 pass break ups. Maryland scored 3 points on the day, and had 3 drives out of 11 go for more than 40 yards; hell, only 6 broke 30 yards. The Terrapins were limited to 2/11 on 3rd and 4th down before the 4th quarter, and even facing the backups for long stretches of that second half still struggled to get above 300 total yards of offense before their final 3 drives.
On the other side of the ball, UM averaged an even 10 yards per play on the day, spearheaded by Wilton Speight’s arm (79% passing, 362 yards, 15.1 (!) ypa, 2 TDs plus a rushing score) and a mashing by the backs (7.0 ypc, 5 TDs). For the game they finished with 660 yards of total offense, gave up only 1 sack and 3 TFLs, never punted, and scored on every drive save 1, which ended on downs deep in the Maryland redzone.
In years past, this could have been a bit of a trap game, one where UM let an inferior team hang around and make it interesting. But not this year, not this team, not under this coach. Michigan did what they’ve done basically all year, which is blow out their opponents efficiently. Whatever real or perceived missteps by the defense recently have been thoroughly covered up by an offense that has scored a touchdown on half of their drives the last 3 games (16-for-32).
Best: Great Speight Marty!
Okay, I’ll admit it: Jim Harbaugh might have made the right decision at QB this offseason. Or he’s a hell of a coach. It’s probably both. Wilton Speight has gone from a guy who nobody expected to be better than “another Al Borges recruit who never started at QB” to maybe the best QB in the Big 10. Following up a really solid outing against MSU last week, Speight didn’t miss a beat. He set a team record with 292 yards in the first half, systematically walking his team down the field for TDs on all 5 drives. He reads the field like a seasoned pro, even if he still holds onto the ball a step too much, and you can tell Harbaugh is comfortable with his command of the offense because the playbook continues to expand. Now, that 2nd-and-34 pass for 56 yards to Evans was a bit of luck, but he also fired a couple of bullets to Darboh and Butt in coverage, including on a cross-field pass from Peppers, that required a high degree of concentration and arm strength.
I know the refrain is always “Speight needs to play like X to beat OSU” this year, but I’m fairly confident that the Wilton Speight we’ve seen since the bye week shows up at a game, UM would be favored to win against anyone in the country save Alabama. And even that might be even money.
Best: Everybody Brought Their Mitts to This Game
The best offense I saw at Michigan was either 2003 or 2004, featuring either a senior Navarre or a freshman Henne, Doak Walker-winning Chris Perry or first-year phenom Mike Hart (both solid receivers as well), and guys like Braylon, Breaston, Avant, and Massaquoi reeling in balls all over the field. This was the 2-year span where even Carr’s distaste for passing was superseded by the talent on the field; Edwards caught 182 passes for almost 2,500 yards and 29 TDs over those two seasons, and both Avant and Breaston had their moments both in those seasons and beyond.
This group of receivers doesn’t have the same star power, and it’s weird to say that in 2016 they won’t have the same prolific passing numbers (Darboh leads the team with 42 receptions) as teams over a decade before, but this is probably the 2nd-best collection of receivers I’ve seen at Michigan. And it might sound cliche, but it’s definitely a group that is greater than the sum of their parts. Butt is the best receiving tight end in the country, but coming into the year I don’t think most college football fans considered Darboh or Chesson (outsized preseason draft hype aside) as top-flight receivers. And yet, Michigan has a top-5 passing offense in the country, and that’s weighed down a bit by “mediocre” performances to start the year.
Darboh has clearly taken a step forward in his play this year, showing some unexpected burst to complement his physical style, and the number of highlight reel catches is growing every game. He’s more than a possession receiver at this point, and has helped pick up the slack a bit from Chesson, who until this game was scuttling a bit. But against Maryland, Jehu had 5 catches for 112 yards and a TD, and repeatedly found himself blitheringly wide open. One hopes this is a bit like the end of last year, when Chesson took flight and brought a gamebreaker element to the offense. And has been the case for a couple of years now, Jake Butt is the best receiving TE in the country and continues to break records at the position.
And to add a little bit of fun to the blowout, the backs had some great, juggling receptions. Smith, Hill, and (in particular) Evans all showed they spent some time with the Juggs machine, particularly Evans, who bobbled a (slightly) underthrown ball before turning it into a 56-yard screen.
The scary thing is you can tell there are elements to this offense that are still works-in-progress. Peppers, for one, will probably be used even more dynamically when the opponent requires it. The running game, despite having consistently dominated teams on the ground and already surpassing 2015’s totals, still lacks that breakthrough threat that could turn the plethora of 20-yard gains UM has to 50 yarders. But these are minor complaints; this is an historically good offense for UM wed to one of the best defenses in the country.
Worst, I guess: Stop Getting Parts of my Yards
I want to get annoyed with the missed tackles. I know both Stribling and Lewis have struggled a small bit in coverage recently. Gedeon and McGray have shown some limitations in coverage (a number of those screens were fired at Gedeon) and going sideline-to-sideline; in this game, Maryland attacked the edge a lot specifically because they wanted to see if the LBs would flake. And some of these same issues showed up last week against MSU, at least in spurts, so it’s becoming more of a trend than a one-off data point created by a team that spent a non-insignificant part of their 2-7 season getting ready for a couple of drives. I want to be concerned.
And yet, I just can’t. UM held Maryland scoreless until midway through the 3rd quarter. They won the game by 56 points. They collected 2 interceptions, held the Terrapins to under 100 yards rushing, and were living in Maryland’s backfield even when they didn’t get a sack.
Durkin did what I think most smart coaches do; they figure out the side of the ball they know the best (in this case defense), focus more on that during gameday, and hire a guy to run a scheme that works with the talent available to you on the other side. Walt Bell’s Arkansas State teams ran up and down the field on almost everyone, and he was part of successful offensive staffs at UNC before that. Maryland runs a hyper aggressive, if somewhat inefficient, spread offense that can take advantage of the shifty athletes they have at RB. And he knew that throwing downfield was going to be tough sledding, but screens and little crossing routes allow his athletes to be in space and rely on the reality that college football players aren’t always going to tackle properly. It was a really good game pan, executed well in sections…that resulted in UM holding them to one of their lowest offensive outputs of the year (and their lowest when Hills is the starter).
In this game, UM was caught flat-footed a bit, especially early on, as Maryland just kept running them sideline to sideline. It was clear Maryland didn’t expect to get much push inside, and they ran away from the pressure as best they could. I’d say about half of Maryland’s came on 2-3 tunnel screens, and so you hope Brown and co. figure out how to compensate for teams going to that well. But that 56-yard catch-and-run to end the half was just a good playcall in a game UM was leading by 35 points with no time on the clock, and in most cases Maryland couldn’t really build on any chunk plays.
Maryland is going to be a pain in the ass in years to come, especially as Durkin continues to recruit well. He’ll probably never beat UM or OSU out for most recruits, but a decent collection of 4* and high 3* athletes can absolutely wreak havoc on most of the conference. Next year, I could see them exploit some of UM’s inexperience and make this a game. But I’m going to need more to get worried about this team, and saying “Indiana 2015” ignores so many injuries and context that simply doesn’t apply to this season.
Plus, UM gets to play Puntasaurus Rex next week, so I expect most complaints to be about Iowa going for it on 4th down and cracking 100 yards of total offense.
- Kenny Allen hit another decent FG in this game. Whatever was wrong a couple weeks ago seems to have been fixed. Again, none of this should matter until OSU at the earliest, but having a competent kicker certainly doesn’t hurt.
- It’s becoming blase to say, but Peppers had another great game. He was a spark plug on offense, picked up another TFL as part of a 5-tackle day, and absolutely rattled Caleb Rowe(?) on an unblocked rush in the 2nd quarter. Plus, he threw an…okay, it wasn’t that great of a pass back to Speight on that trick play, but the end result was still a big completion. It does feel like there are a bunch of plays that Harbaugh isn’t going to roll out quite yet for Peppers, and if I’m OSU I’m getting really nervous.
- Other than Kalis getting a dumb penalty (and a good berating by Harbaugh that ESPN picked up), the offensive line played really well. Speight had time to throw, the backs basically got deposited 4 yards downfield before they had much contact, and they 3 TFLs for 6 total yards is impressive regardless of the opposition. It seems like the unit has solidified after Newsome went down.
- MSU found a way to lose to Illinois and assure themselves of a losing season. Mark Dantonio has earned himself some leeway for a down year, but people can say “they could be in for a dogfight against Rutgers” with a straight face. In 2016!
- OSU beating up on Nebraska didn’t really shock me. Nebraska shot to 7-0 on the back of close wins against Indiana and Oregon, meh wins against Purdue, NW, and Illinois, and Wyoming (that game was 24-17 heading into the 4th) and a blowout of Fresno St. They are an okay team, but put them in the eastern division and they’re probably a shade better than Maryland, if that. This is still a tractable team, and if you think J.T. Barrett is suddenly “back” throwing the ball, good luck with that.
Next Week: Iowa
This looked like one of the toughest road contests even a month ago. Now, my guess is Iowa keeps it close for a quarter and then UM opens up the flood gates. I don’t see this team getting flustered on the road, and thanks to realignment UM hasn’t played at Kinnick Stadium since 2013. It was a house of horrors for UM under RR and Hoke; methinks that won’t continue with Harbaugh.
Now, I enjoyed this win, mostly because it was the type of win UM needed to have after last year's disheartening ending. UM was the better team in basically every facet of the game save LJ Scott having probably his best performance as a Spartan, and even that was a wash overall. They didn't need to make a dramatic comeback, or a goal line stand, or a 1-in-a-million special teams blunder to escape with a victory. They won with an air of professionalism, a sense that this would be a tough game but that a win wouldn't define their season, and after so many years of clown shows in the program and juggalos trolling about, it was refreshing in its efficiency.
But apparently not everyone who cheers for UM did, and so Twitter and message boards are full of people complaining that a 2-score win over a rival on the road, in a game that was never in doubt after halftime, was somehow disappointing and a sign of weakness.
Now, some of these concerns have minor bases in fact. MSU was able to run the ball effectively early on, mixing up plunges by Scott with sweeps by Shelton and Corley to keep UM off-balance. For the game, MSU finished with over 200 yards on the ground, and Scott did most of the damage with a fine display of power, speed, and balance. MSU was able to get into UM’s redzone 6 times, which was the same number they had allowed total thus far in the year. UM gave MSU 4 first downs due to penalty, and for the game gave up 23 first downs. In the second half, UM only picked up 149 yards of total offense while MSU racked up 217. And UM did allow MSU to score 13 points in the final 8-ish minutes of the game, cutting a 20-point lead to 7 with 1 second left.
But my gawd, to read people’s responses to this game you’d think UM had been run off the field. Michigan scored on 6 of their first 7 possessions, with the only real misstep being Speight throwing a pick on a wheel route where he admitted on the sideline to not seeing Hicks in coverage. For the game, UM averaged 6.5 yards per play to MSU’s 5.7, including almost 10 ypa in the air and 4.6 on the ground. Heading into the 4th quarter, UM had held MSU to 34 yards in the air, largely bottled up Scott after a really solid first quarter, and had repeatedly turned back MSU in the redzone despite some dubious calls that extended drives. Speight was 16/25 for 244 yards, wasn’t sacked, and was masterful in moving the offense down the field, seemingly hitting open players at will. Darboh continued his solid senior season with a career day, and Peppers put the cherry on top of another fantastic game by returning MSU’s aborted 2-point conversion for the final points and then unleashing a guttural cry-and-flip after the last snap.
For the game, UM scored on all 6 of their redzone possessions, and in a game where MSU held onto the ball for 11:32 of the first quarter, UM still won the (pretty meaningless) time of possession. They converted 5-of-11 3rd down conversions, were 1-for-1 on 4th down, and even punted 3 times successfully.
On the other side of the ball, MSU scored 10 points and picked up 153 yards on their first three drives, then were held to 77 yards on their next 4 drives, including an INT, a turnover on downs, and a missed FG. Down 20 with about 8 minutes to go, they went into Joe Tiller garbage time stats mode, aided by the always inept Big 10 officiating crew (more on them later), which somehow gave Price a reception on a ball that clearly bounced into his hands and what looked like a facemask push-off by Madaris on his TD grab, to say nothing of the voluminous holds by MSU’s linemen that went uncalled.
I never thought UM was going to blow MSU out by 30+; even at their worst, UM never lost that handily to MSU. And despite their record MSU isn’t 2-6 bad; they’ve had some bad luck in close-ish games and should probably be sitting around 4-4 right now. But at the same time, MSU isn't nearly as plucky and upstart as some assume they are, as it's a team full of underperforming upperclassmen and unproven youngsters, and if you've heard those words before it's because they were said about a slew of recent UM teams. I'd be surprised if they cratered going forward, but if they had lost 3-4 games last season (as their play generally warranted) as opposed to slipping into the CoFoPo, saying this might be a program settling into goodness instead of greatness would be met with less resistance.
Regardless, UM took another step forward in their quest toward a B1G title and the playoff spot that would follow. They are undoubtedly one of the top 2-3 teams in the nation, and in a perverse way, can sort of hope this version of MSU sticks around at least until after OSU comes to town. The Buckeyes have looked very tractable this past month, and with Illinois and Rutgers coming up beforehand you could see MSU get a bit of momentum with two shots at "saving" their season against OSU and PSU. But for the first time in what I hope is a trend, UM can look at MSU as just another step toward greater things, not a stumbling block.
Worst: Garbage time
People complain that I try to drag professional wrestling and its fractured storytelling into this column too often, so I'll make it quick. In the the mid-90's, WWF was infatuated with the idea of occupational wrestlers. So you had the Repo Man, the tax collector Irwin R. Schyster, the cop Big Boss Man and his noted Canadian rival The Mountie, and Doink the Clown, amongst many others. And one of the lesser-remembered characters was Duke "The Dumpster" Droese, a wrestling garbage man. Well, guess what, a whole bunch of MSU's yards and points yesterday came during garbage time.
But yeah, that's it.
MSU entered the 4 quarter with 34 yards passing and 170 yards in total offense, trailing by 17. And hell, that was probably an overstatement of their performance; they finished the 1st quarter with 110 total yards of offense. So for basically a half of football, while UM systematically marched up and down the field scoring on 5 of 6 drives, MSU was held to 60 yards total on 4 drives. LJ Scott shredded UM on that first TD drive but was mostly held in check afterwards.
By the time MSU really started to move the ball in any way consistently, they were down 20 and UM was playing rather conservatively offensively, recognizing that the only way MSU makes this a game is if UM turns the ball over or otherwise gives them an opening. With that in mind, MSU's final 4 drives were for 256 yards, including an utterly meaningless final TD with 1 second left. I am all for teams continuing to play until the final whistle, but I'm not going to derive too much from a bunch of yards picked up by a freshmen QB down 20 with 7 minutes to go in a game. Nor am I going to look askance at a defense that picked up 7 TFLs, including 2 sacks, and 9(!) QB hits, for letting up a bit at the end, especially as the referees started to call literally any contact as pass interference. Obviously you'd like to see UM stomp the life out of MSU, but this was a game where UM clearly imposed its will during the competitive portions of the contest.
Worst: Counter-factuals =/= Factually Possible
I know people love to trot out hypotheticals when they lose (or win too closely, for we live in that type of world, apparently), to rationalize away how history played out. But good lord, were there some doozies with this game. The first I saw were a number of people wondering if MSU would have been better off player Brian Lewerke all game, given how relatively effective he was throwing the ball late in the game. He finished with an even 100 yards on 6-of-10 passing and a TD, as well as 3 rushes for 24 yards. Considering O'Connor and Terry combined for 84 yards on 7-of-18 passing and a pick, that constitutes a leading performance, I guess. But Brian Lewerke is a freshman who struggled throwing the ball against Maryland, and at no point in this game did it seem like he was masterfully reading defenses or handling pressure particularly well. Had he started the game, he would have been hounded just as much as O'Connor and Terry, and in all likelihod would have struggled just as mightily. But because he came in well after the game was decided and was bailed out by a terrible replay of a bounced ball, people thought the game would have been different had he played more. I don't think so.
Similarly, I saw people wonder how many more yards Scott would have gotten had he not shared carries with Holmes early on. Again, Scott was the best weapon MSU had on the day, and in that first half he was reasonably successful (92 yards on 14 carries). But other than 1 40-yard run midway through the 4th quarter and a long reception on that final drive, Scott was held in check for the rest of the game. He was probably the best RB UM has played all year, but he wasn't some world-beater. And in fact, when MSU tried to convert in the redzone after Speight's pick, it was Scott who was consistently denied, losing a yard on the 6 carries he had on that drive. Scott got the bulk of the carries in this game and put up superficially good numbers, but the idea that he would have plowed through the defense all game is contradicted by about a half of actual football wherein he did very little.
Finally, there was some concern that MSU had "figured out" UM's offense a bit, as they forced the Wolverines to punt on their last 3 drives. Maybe it's true that UM became a bit more conservative, running the ball and bleeding the clock. But this was a game wherein MSU needed UM to give them opportunities to score quickly on short fields, and at no point was Harbaugh going to oblige up 20. UM didn't give up a sack all day to MSU, which is a shocking thing to say given how this rivalry has gone the past half-dozen years. UM knew they only had to hold onto the ball to get out of Lansing with a win, and sometimes playing with a 20-point lead doesn't mean dropping another couple of TDs to prove a point, especially against a team that relied on insanity last year for the win. Instead, UM played to win the game; they had already proven their point the first 3 quarters, and I don't think MSU exposed any particular weaknesses or inefficiencies in their offense except, I guess, get beaten so badly they let up a bit.
Best: Darboh All Day
Amara Darboh had himself a game. He set a career high with 8 catches for 165 yards, including a couple of amazing receptions under extremely heavy duress. I know the highlight was the one-hander above, but he had another great one-hander early in the 3rd quarter and a couple of other great catches on the day. It was clear after the first series that MSU’s corners couldn’t hang with any of UM’s receivers, and thus they resorted to the typical clutching and grabbing you’ve come to expect, but Darboh simply powered through it all. He leads the team with 38 receptions for 664 yards, and has displayed a nice combination of strength and speed that you need to be a #1 receiver. All the talk coming into the year was about Chesson as a top WR, and while I do think people are more down on him than they should be, Darboh has definitely emerged as Speight’s preferred target. I’m certainly not the first to make this comparison, but he really does feel like a taller Jason Avant. Avant had some of the best hands I can remember on a UM receiver, but Darboh is so big and strong that he really can elevate through contact and secure passes that otherwise would be lost. And unlike Avant, he’s 6’ 3” and can highpoint balls pretty well, giving his QB a bit more of Tacopants to throw to in tight spots. Chesson at his best is probably still the better pro prospect, but while everyone is rightfully focused on Hoke’s recruiting of the defense, let it be said that he did far better than I expected at the offensive skill positions in identifying players who could turn into solid, NFL-level players. All three leading receivers (Chesson, Butt, and Darboh) will probably get drafted this year, and if Darboh can continue his maturation there is no reason he can’t carve out a nice career in the NFL as a possession receiver with a little bit of additional explosiveness.
Best: The Rudockian QB UM Deserves AND The One It Needs Right Now
Over the past 2 games, Wilton Speight has completed 67% of his passes for 497 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, and 10.4 ypa. Against both the Illini and MSU, he sat in the pocket and delivered strikes despite being under pressure for first downs, keeping the offense humming along while also showing his underrated elusiveness both as a rusher and by side-stepping blitzers. He has clearly spent time improving himself this year and his comfort with the offense, giving credence to the claims he spent the bye week reviewing game film and fixing mechanical and mental issues that had started to fester in the first half of the season. While Peppers has rightfully gotten a lot of credit for the dimension he brings to the offense, Speight as a competent sniper is the biggest reason why this year's team has looked so much better on offense. Defenses can't cheat against the run because Speight can put the ball in prime spots for his receivers, they have to be judicious blitzing because he can escape the pressure and still has enough arm strength to get the ball downfield, and he shows the discipline to only throw the ball into tight spots when necessary, not haphazardly.
Last year, Rudock struggled against what was basically the same MSU secondary, completing 60% of his passes but for only 6.7 ypa. As a team, UM was only 4-for-16 on 3rd and 4th down, their cause aided greatly by about 150-ish yards in field position gained through Aussie punting and solid returns. He didn't cost UM the win, but that game was perhaps the height of the "maybe Rudock just isn't that good" talk. From that point forward, Rudock finished with 15 TDs and 3 INTs, completed 67%, and gave us all the first glimpses of a fully operational Harbaughffense.
About the only thing that seems to be depressing Speight's stats is the effectiveness of the rest of the offense. Last year's rush offense finished the season with 2057 yards on 491 carries, scoring 27 times; by comparison, this year's team already has 1991 yards on 371 carries, scoring 31 times. Rudock was asked to throw so often because, frankly, the offense struggled to move the ball otherwise. Plus. the defense hasn't really been stuck in a shootout; Colorado was probably the closest to one thus far and UM won that game by 17. Last year, Rudock was throwing 30+ times against PSU, Indiana, and OSU because he needed to; this year, Speight rarely needs to throw the ball much (except weirdly against UCF) for the offense to put up huge point totals, and it almost feels mean to do so in these 20+ point blowouts. Speight simply isn't being asked to do more than he is, but there is mounting evidence that if he's called upon to do so, he can provide at least as effective a performance from the QB position as Rudock did to end the year. I see people call him a game manager and that belittles how effective he's been for most of the year throwing the ball. He absolutely should be in the conversation for best QB in the conference, and hopefully these next couple of games he can raise his national profile even more.
Best: Peppers For President
He knew ... he knew all along. pic.twitter.com/BBZpEpkFYM
— SB Nation (@SBNation) October 29, 2016
Along with Darboh, the other huge game this day was had by Jabrill Peppers. He scored UM's first TD of the game on a great run, broke out a Barry Sanders-esque spin move to escape a tackle in the 3rd, and finished the game with 29 yards rushing. On defense, he had 7 tackles, including 2 TFLs, and repeatedly exploded by would-be blockers to take down Scott in the backfield or demolish a flailing Lewerke as he tried to keep drives alive. Plus, he capped off Dantonio's terrible decision to go for 2 by sprinting back the fumble for the score, sending half of Spartain Stadium into delirium and the half actually full of MSU fans home at least with the sobering reality that he's probably on his way to the NFL next year. Again, he probably won't win the Heisman as long as Lamar Jackson and Louisville doesn't implode, but Peppers is probably the best athlete in college football and most definitely it's most dynamic and flexible. About the only complaint I have is that he needs to start throwing the ball out of the Pepcat just to keep defenses honest, as MSU was ripe for a completion over their head on a couple of those plays.
Meh: A Slightly Mortal Defense
If it isn't clear by now, I wasn't too bothered by the last couple of MSU drives. But I was a bit bothered by how effective MSU was running the ball early on in the game. Yes there was holding, but MSU's offensive playcalling was heavy on runs and sweeps, two things I knew to expect, and yet UM struggled at times tackling or limiting the damage on these plays. Some of that is emotion and the vagaries of the game, but it was still the first time this season when it felt like they were a bit surprised by the offensive playcalling. At some point on a short 3rd down, it sure seemed like UM went with 3 down linemen and were summarily steamrolled for a first, and that's simply not something we've come to expect from Don Brown and this unit.
Again, this is a minor quibble. MSU was still under 200 yards of total offense late into the 4th quarter, and MSU's best passing offense seemed to be the PI flag. 9 QB hits tells me that even though UM only recorded 2 sacks, they were living in the backfield all day, as was the fact both Terry and Lewerke had to leave the game due to various injuries. Nothing felt cheap or dangerous, but the defensive line just constricted MSU's offensive line until it felt like the Spartans were operating in a phone booth for much of the game.
As for the LBs, both Gedeon and McCray played well enough even though both were picked on a bit with sweeps and short passes to Corley and Shelton. Hill also played like a de facto LB and led the team in tackles, which is a good sign against this type of "grinding" offense.
As for the secondary, they played extremely well except when the referees decided to throw flags to, I don't know, show some mercy to MSU. Peppers got flagged on a 3rd-down incompletion in the endzone after Shelton pushed him in the face, and Lewis got a cheap one late in the 4th where him being in the same general vicinity of the receiver was deemed a major offense. Still, UM played like a championship defense that booted MSU off the field when they needed to after a couple of early struggles.
Worst: These guys
This weekend was a banner one for terrible refereeing, whether it be multiple referees missing Jordan Westerkamp being run into by T. J. Watt on a crossing route, Jimbo Fisher rightfully calling out ACC idiocy in their game against Clemson, and whatever happened in this game. For the word go, it seemed like the refs were just not going to call holding no matter how egregiously MSU's offensive line held on for dear life. Similarly, part of the reason Amara Darboh had to make so many amazing 1-handed catches was because his other hand was being held by a trailing MSU corner. Heck, I think MSU was called for 4 PIs in this game and they probably could have been called for double. UM, of course, was called for 3 PIs themselves, most of the dubious quality wherein a receiver runs into a corner, flails around for a second, and then demands a flag.
To make matters worse, they absolutely borked the replay on Price's 3rd-down catch, as it clearly hit the turf and bounced into his chest. Heck, Brock Huard thought it was pretty obvious, and if the physical manifestation of 2005 thinks you missed something obvious, you know you're in trouble.
At least they didn't hit Wormley for a targetting foul, which would have been the most B1G thing to do on a play that was basically a hard tackle. None of these missteps wound up mattering in the end, but at some point you'd hope this conference would stop letting games be governed by the inconsistent whims of the striped shirts.
Best: Death of the Troll King
This time, it feels different. I know UM beat MSU in 2012 on a late FG, and some of us figured it was the beginning of a shift back to UM dominance. It wasn’t pretty by any stretch, but it was a rivalry game played in suboptimal conditions against a mediocre outfit. MSU looked like it was scuttling, returning to the program’s mediocre roots after a brief run of success, beneficiaries of temporary downturns at UM and (to a lesser extent) OSU. And after what felt like an eternity of diatribes about fallen pride and respect, the chip on Mark Dantonio’s shoulder had finally been knocked off.
But the cracks in Hoke’s outfit had already started to show, with bad losses to Alabama and Notre Dame to start the year and similarly dismal showings forthcoming against Nebraska as well as “competitive” losses to OSU and South Carolina. You remember how the rest of Hoke’s tenure played out, and as it pertained to the next two years against MSU, the less said the better. And MSU had merely hit a speed bump, unearthing another NFL-caliber QB in that lost season and continued an unprecedented level of success for the Spartans.
Now, I’ll own up to my biases relating to MSU. Their defense drove me crazy both because of how objectively effective it was and how blatant the clutching, the grabbing, the “60 minutes of unnecessary roughness” of it all. They always had a Bullough floating around in the front 7, the physical embodiment of Axe body spray, MMA-inspired shirts, and how the back seat of my 1989 Jeep Wrangler smelled the one time I forgot to put the top up before it rained. They had an offense full of multi-faceted running backs and receivers and an offensive line that usually featured a slew of upperclassmen who just steamrolled UM’s defensive line with a nastiness that used to be the hallmark of UM’s best squads. And while Kirk Cousins was perfectly fine, their most recent run was fueled by Connor Cook, the type of guy who somehow came across as a profoundly, unacceptably dickish to NFL teams. Yes, the same teams that will ignore a LOT of red flags relating to sexual assaults, alcoholism, domestic violence, and other serious transgressions looked at a guy with NFL measurables (with some accuracy issues, admittedly) and picked guys like Christian Hackenerg, Jacoby Brissett, and Cody Kessler before him. But still, those are all college kids, players trying to win games for their team, and maybe I’m just at that part of middle-age where it feels weird yelling at kids about half your age.
But the one constant source of my ire has been Mark Dantonio. On the surface, he’s not that much different than the best UM coaches. He seems to live and breathe an older style of football, the type that gets annoyed with sideline reporters asking inane questions, is enraged by mediocre officiating, and can a preternatural ability to direct the focus of 80+ college men toward a singular goal regardless of the odds. He cares profoundly, obsessively about beating Michigan and used that singular focus, that benchmark to lift a program from mediocrity to being one of the top teams in the nation since he arrived. I mean, at it’s base level, he turned an underdog into a top dog, and for as cliche as that sounds it’s better than rooting for Saban or Meyer every year.
But Dantonio’s always been so unlikable to me. Just profoundly, undeniably unlikeable. Part of it was definitely because he kept winning, in so many different ways, no matter what UM threw at him. The smugness that comes from backing up your trolling, your needling, with results on the field is at least earned.
But no, what has driven me crazy about Dantonio has been this sense that he derives a certain layer of his identity, his being from how the players under his charge perform and how other players respond to his program. It’s not that you shouldn’t care about your job or the players you coach, but it seems like most coaches can separate how their teams do on the field and how they are perceived off it with how their beings. But not so with Dantonio. It’s why he got into a war of words with Mike Hart, calling out his height in a press conference. It’s why, after Joe Bolden foolishly jammed a stake into the ground 2 years ago, Dantonio made a point of scoring a final touchdown to “put a stake in them” and is visibly pained that “the program over there” doesn’t respect him and his team. It’s why when his players don’t win by enough, or have the temerity to throw an interception when put into a bad position by his playcall, he is quick to point that out. He embodies the asinine “did you even go to Michigan?” tripe you hear from MSU (and sadly, some UM) fans around games like this. His id, ego, and super ego are all the same, and they are all mad dogging you right now for not telling him how great he is.
I guess it’s the hypocrisy of it all, this narrative surrounding him that built up over the years. He was the “strict disciplinarian” to RR’s blue streak even when he was pulling in guys with question marks like Glenn Winston out of Ingham County jail to play against Michigan before kicking him off the team again. The verbal exchanges and press conference sub-tweeting-esque references to players on other teams, or rants at HS camps because they aren’t talking about his program enough, didn’t mesh with the guy who was portrayed as this sage leader in the conference. Or simply how bad he seemed to be at handling his team’s success at times. And maybe he’s a great guy in person or in the community, but like with Drew Sharp, all I see is the public persona, and that version is pretty unbearable.
It has to be so, so exhausting to always be looking for that next flashpoint to fuel the anger, and it’s why in its absence you hear him drag up the little brother stuff almost a decade after it happened, just to suck out the last little bit of marrow from the gristle. And while Harbaugh has definitely shown a similar doggedness, it’s never felt to be about “Jim Harbaugh” as much as the program regaining its place on a national stage. But with Dantonio, he wanted to show Joe Bolden and the rest of the UM players that you don’t disrespect him and the MSU program. Harbaugh dropped 78 on Rutgers and it never felt personal but merely the logical output of football plays; every one of MSU’s 23 points this game might as well have been accompanied with a ruler with which to measure the length of one’s member, that’s how personal it seemed.
Hell, this sense of personal pride and self worth is 100% why Dantonio called for the 2-point conversion down 7 at the end of the game; there is no logical reason to do so unless you honestly think your kicker would miss the extra point on some miraculous onside kick TD scenario. But if they had scored, MSU would probably lay claim to having lost to UM by the least of any team this year, and in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.
But this was the game where all of it ended for me. MSU may very well win another game against UM during Dantonio’s tenure; honestly, I’d be a bit surprised if he didn’t finish his career with a winning record against UM. But the Dantonio that tormented UM is probably gone forever. UM now features great coaching as well as great talent, and it’s hard to imagine MSU being able to catch UM in either department any time soon. And more than that, UM has cut out Dantonio’s legs these past 2 years when it comes to hate, to disrespect, to the bitterness that drives him. Under Harbaugh, I’d be amazed if you saw another stake or another Hart; at worst, you might have some chatter on social media, but nothing that would rise to the level of billboard material. In it’s stead will be the most milquetoast of platitudes toward MSU, giving them credit regardless of their record and wishing them luck after the final whistle. MSU will never just be another team on the schedule, and anyone who says otherwise need only look at the message boards around here during this week. But it’s back to just a rivalry game, not some snakebitten foray into the psyche of an angry man.
Best: Bring on the Turtles
D.J. Durkin is going to make Maryland competitive. He's a crack recruiter, he knows how to field solid defenses (even if this year is still a work in progress), and he seems good at identifying issues and the right fixes (like for his offense) quickly. But right now, they're still a middling conference team that has struggled moving the ball against decent defenses. Michigan has a defense that's a bit better than decent, and an offense that can just grind up the Terrapin's undersized front 7. It won't be Rutgers, but this could well be a game UM breaks 50 without really trying.